Royal armor in the Renaissance was far more than protective equipment for the battlefield. Most often worn at court ceremonies and in parades, pageants, and jousting tournaments, it proclaimed the rulers' strength and power. Elaborately decorated with imagery drawn from history, mythology, or the Bible, armor symbolically presented emperors and kings as the new Caesar, the equal of Hercules and other ancient heroes, the defender of the faith, or the model of chivalry. Etched or engraved images of saints or the Virgin and Child asserted that the rulers enjoyed divine protection. Much more costly than portraits by the leading painters of the day, suits of royal armor are dazzling works of wearable sculpture that affirmed their owners' right to govern.
The Art of Power presents many of the most splendid suits of armor, helmets, shields, and equestrian armor from the Royal Armory in Madrid. One of the finest collections of armor in the world, it was created by Spanish members of the Habsburg dynasty that ruled much of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Armor once belonging to Holy Roman Emperors and Spanish monarchs is exhibited alongside tapestries and paintings show the armor in use. Several suits of armor are paired with portraits by Alonso Sánchez Coello, Anthonis Mor, Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, and other artists who depicted rulers wearing the same armor.
The most prestigious chivalric order was that of the Golden Fleece, founded in 1430 by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, to defend the Christian faith and "exalt the noble order of knighthood." In the sixteenth century, membership was limited to the sovereign plus fifty knights from royal or noble families. The order's insignia, a ram's fleece worn suspended from a collar or necklace, alludes to the mythical quest of the Greek hero Jason to seize the Golden Fleece, guarded by a dragon on the Black Sea.
Because Jason's success enabled him to regain his rightful place as king of Iolcus in Thessaly, the Golden Fleece became associated with kingship. One of the principal symbols of power associated with the Spanish crown since the later 15th century, it appears frequently on the armor, including the helmet of Philip the Good's great-grandson, Charles V.
For most of the fifteenth century, Spain was divided into the kingdoms of Castile and Leon, Aragon, and Navarre, with the Muslim emirate of Granada in the south. The Muslim presence in Spain dates to the 8th century, when it rapidly extended over most of the Iberian Peninsula. The Christian reconquest of Toledo in 1085 reduced al-Andalus to the southern half of the country.
The intellectual heart of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, had long been Cordoba, a center of advancements in science, philosophy, history, and the arts, as well as the first city in Europe to provide public libraries and modern amenities such as street lamps for nighttime illumination. The unification of Spain began with the marriage of Isabella, Queen of Castile, and Ferdinand, King of Aragon, in 1469. During their reign, the Spanish reconquest of the peninsula concluded with the fall of Granada in 1492. By the mid-13th century, nearly constant warfare with the Christian kingdoms to the north had shrunken Muslim-controlled territories to the region around Granada, ruled by the Nasrid dynasty under which the palatial fortress of the Alhambra was built.
Maximilian I was Holy Roman Emperor from 1508 until his death in 1519, having previously ruled jointly with his father, Frederick III. The Holy Roman Empire arose from the ruins of the Carolingian empire of Charlemagne, which splintered following his death in 814. The eastern portion encompassing the German-speaking lands of central Europe developed into the Holy Roman Empire, which from the 15th century onward was ruled almost exclusively by members of the House of Habsburg. Originally from Switzerland, the Habsburgs governed from Austria after 1278. They began expanding their dominions when Maximilian's marriage to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 brought the Duchy of Burgundy and the Netherlands under Habsburg control. Spain became part of the empire after their son, Philip the Handsome, married the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1496.
Maximilian commissioned works of art and armor that conveyed his imperial status. The monumental woodcut by Albrecht Dürer and his workshop evokes the triumphal arches constructed in ancient Rome in honor of victorious emperors. On either side, scenes of successful battles and dynastic marriages announce Maximilian's military and diplomatic prowess. The central portion depicts a family tree purporting to trace his genealogical descent from Hector of Troy, Julius Caesar, and Clovis, the founder of the French royal dynasty. Maximilian's equestrian armor portraying feats of strength by Hercules and Samson, also presents him as the successor to heroes of antiquity.
The grandson of Maximilian and son of Joanna ("the Mad") of Castile, Charles became king of Spain, where he ruled as Charles I, in 1516. Three years later he was elected Holy Roman Emperor, reigning as Charles V from 1519 to 1556. He was then the most powerful man in Europe, with domains extending across central Europe, the Netherlands, Flanders, Burgundy, Spain, the Duchy of Milan, the Kingdom of Naples, enclaves in North Africa, and much of the Americas. Before ascending to the Spanish throne, Charles lived in the Burgundian Netherlands, where he had been born in 1500. Raised there by Maximilian's daughter, he shared his grandfather's preference for German armorers. Charles' patronage of Kolman and Desiderius Helmschmid of Augsburg brought them fame and set a fashion for elegant armor in which smooth surfaces alternate with vertical bands of gilded and engraved decoration. As a result of his conquest of the Duchy of Milan in 1525, Charles also gained access to the renowned workshop of Filippo Negroli, the sole armorer mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists of 1550. Charles' lavish commissions made the Royal Armory one of the greatest repositories of German and Italian armor in existence.
The Royal Armory was created by Charles V's son, Philip II, whose long reign as king of Spain lasted from 1556 to 1598. His wills stipulated that his collection could not be dispersed after his death, but should instead be handed down to his descendents. Philip's great respect for his father and for the material and symbolic value of the emperor's armor led him to purchase Charles' collection, which had been slated for sale to pay off outstanding debts at the time of his death in 1558. Armor made for subsequent monarchs was later added to those two core collections. Unlike arsenals, which keep weapons and armor to equip an army for battle, the Royal Armory includes trophies of war as well as armor received as diplomatic gifts or worn in pageants, parades, and tournaments. The process of decorating such armor, often by embossing or hammering the steel from the reverse to create designs in relief, weakened the metal. The armor is consequently more propagandistic than utilitarian, serving to impress viewers with its opulence and imagery extolling the wearer's power, valor, and chivalry.
This intricately worked helmet and shield and the armor for a horse are from a spectacular parade garniture (a set of armor) probably commissioned by the Duke of Savoy on the occasion of his marriage to a daughter of Philip II in 1585. Eighteen years later, it was presented to Philip III as a gift from the duke, which his sons delivered to the king when they were sent from their native Turin to Madrid to be educated at the Spanish court.
The garniture has lost some of its original splendor as it now lacks the gemstones, cameos, and crystals that enhanced its lavish decoration. The helmet, crowned with a sphinx, depicts Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of ancient Rome, and the fall of Phaeton, who drove the chariot of the sun too close to the earth, threatening to set the world afire. In the center of the shield, Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) tames the wild horse Bucephalus in the presence of his father, Philip II of Macedon. Armor of this sort combines the chivalric spirit of the late Middle Ages with new Renaissance imagery inspired by the revival of classical art and culture.
On April 24, 1547, the Catholic forces of Charles V defeated a league of German Protestants at the Battle of Mühlberg, on the Elbe River east of Leipzig. The victory reaffirmed Charles' authority over rebellious German princes seeking not only religious freedom but also greater autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire. The suit of armor Charles wore at Mühlberg as well as parts of the equestrian armor were used on that occasion.
An iconic symbol of imperial power, the Mühlberg armor appears in several portraits of Charles V. Shortly after the battle, the emperor's favorite artist, Titian, created two likenesses of him wearing this armor: a monumental equestrian portrait and a full-length standing portrait. The latter work is now lost, but is known from copies by the Spanish artist Pantoja de la Cruz, considered the definitive version of Titian's original.
Philip II wore this armor at the Battle of Saint-Quentin against the French on August 10, 1557, when he won his first victory as king. The armor's association with triumph led the Netherlandish painter Anthonis Mor to portray the king dressed in part of the suit he wore on horseback "as he sallied forth on the day of Saint-Quentin." The same armor appears in Carreño de Miranda's portrait of Charles II, Philip's great-grandson. Both paintings preserve the armor's original blackened surface, which once set off the gilded decoration, but has worn away over the centuries.
Through marriage, Philip inherited the Portuguese crown and rode into Lisbon on a horse partly outfitted in this armor for his coronation as king of Portugal in 1581. The armor for man and horse had been made for him when he was still a prince by his favorite armorer, Wolfgang Grosschedel of Landshut in Bavaria. The decoration includes the insignia of the Golden Fleece, as well as x-shaped crosses alluding to the cross on which Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Burgundy, was crucified. As a result of the marriage of Philip's great-grandfather, Maximilian, to Mary of Burgundy in 1477, the cross became a Spanish royal emblem.
The Holy Roman emperor was elected by a body of seven German princes and archbishops who met for that purpose at Augsburg in 1550. Charles promoted the candidacy of his son Philip, arranging for him a grand tour of European courts that culminated with his arrival in Augsburg to attend the imperial Diet, or formal assembly. The exquisite suit of armor commissioned for that occasion was probably intended to lend Philip a majestic appearance that would impress the electors. Philip, however, succeeded his father only as king of Spain, for the electors chose Charles' brother Ferdinand, archduke of Austria, to become the next emperor.
Desiderius Helmschmid created the extraordinarily sumptuous armor in collaboration with a goldsmith, Jörg Sigman. The elaborate garniture also included an embossed shield, as well as a complete set of equestrian armor, represented here by the chanfron, which covered the horse's face. The suit of armor lacks the original dark patina, still preserved on the shield and chanfron.
Known since the sixteenth century as the Flower-Pattern Armor, this suit was evidently delivered to Philip II during his extended stay in Augsburg for the imperial Diet. Peter Paul Rubens' equestrian portrait of the king dressed in this armor was commissioned after his death by his grandson Philip IV (reigned 1621–1665). The artist borrowed the pose of the horse and rider from a portrait of Charles V, but replaced the emperor's face and armor with those of Philip II, basing them on a likeness of the king that Titian had painted from life. Unusually, the royal flower-pattern armor also appears in Velázquez's portrait of a member of the high nobility, Juan Francisco Pimentel, count of Benavente, who was awarded the collar of the Golden Fleece in 1648 in recognition of his military service to the king.
As the youngest of Philip II's four sons, Philip III (1598–1621) was an unlikely successor to the throne. The presumed heir, the mentally unbalanced Don Carlos, died after he was deemed unfit to rule and two brothers did not survive early childhood. The suits of armor here were made for Prince Philip when he was seven, the year he took the oath as Prince of Asturias, the title for the heir apparent. Because that event relieved fears that the Habsburg dynasty in Spain would come to an end, suits of armor that had belonged to the seven-year-old prince took on special significance. Consequently, they appear in his portraits by Justus Tiel and Pantoja de la Cruz, even though Philip was by then older and would have outgrown the armor. He ascended to the throne in 1598 and ruled until his death at the age of forty-three.
The widespread use of firearms and waning popularity of jousting tournaments caused a steep decline in the production of armor in the seventeenth century. Because the symbolic value of armor outlived its effectiveness in battle, sumptuous examples were still made as diplomatic gifts and appeared in portraits of members of the royal family. Gradually, however, royal armor became dissociated from the rulers for whom it had been made. Rather than projecting an image of their their power, the collection of the Royal Armory became a resource for artists seeking elegant models for the armor they depicted in paintings of non-royal subjects, such as Pedro Núñez del Valle's Jael and Sisera.
The Habsburg line in Spain ended in 1700 with the death of Philip IV's son and successor, Charles II. In 1660 Philip's daughter Maria Teresa had married Louis XIV, paving the way for the French House of Bourbon to assume the Spanish throne. Their grandson Philip V was the first of the Bourbon dynasty to rule Spain and the grandfather of Charles III, whose portrait is the last to portray a king of Spain in armor.