Book Review: The Last Knight

The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I Pierre Terjanian, ed. (New York: Metropolitan Museum, 2019)

I asked for three things for Christmas – new work gloves, brown earrings, and this book. I’ve been interested in Maximilian von Habsburg for a while, and seeing the wonder exhibition of his art and books in the imperial library in Vienna this past summer just stoked the flames. This is the 500th anniversary of his life, and so the Met Museum in New York, in conjunction with the Prado, the Spanish Military Museum, the Kunsthistorischesmuseum in Vienna, and a few other places, had a very large show of his armor, art, and weapons. For those who don’t know, the Met has one of the largest collections of medieval and Renaissance armor in the world. This book is the catalogue of that exhibition.

The title comes from how a later German historian described Maximilian. He straddled the worlds of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, was a knight in the medieval sense, and a Renaissance prince, and shaped a lot of European history. His grandson, Charles I of Spain, V of the Holy Roman Empire, owned half of the planet, because of Grandfather’s alliances and marriages.

The book is an art book, meaning large with lots and lots of illustrations. It is a museum catalogue, after all, with essays about various topics, and pictures of the different things in the exhibition. A lot of it is about how Maximilian had himself represented, in books, armor, and official events. We forget that the medieval and Renaissance worlds were visual – the physical image of monarchs and princes meant a lot, and how they presented themselves shaped their political and social power. Thus much of the first third of the book is about image, imagination, and what we would think of as Maximilian’s PR efforts.

Maximilian never had as much money as he needed for his plans, so you will read a lot about how he had trouble paying for things, or got dunned by his artists and armorers. Back in those days, governments tried not to run a deficit.

The photos are excellent, as is the technical information. The authors assume that if you bought the book 1) you have a basic knowledge of medieval warfare and jousting, and 2) you are interested in technical terms and details. There is a glossary, but it helps if you know some armor vocabulary (sallet, sabaton, paudron, things like that.) Otherwise you can figure out most of what is being described.

The book is not entirely armor, but mostly. Other chapters include woodcuts and engravings of Max in armor, descriptions of his religious-military associations, his background, and his grand dreams. You might want a magnifying glass for some things, if you are that interested in symbolism or the details of the armor. It is all beautiful as well as practical, and by the time you are half-way through the book, your admiration for the men who could imagine, engineer, and make that sort of thing in metal will grow. A lot of the armor came from Augsburg, with some from Nuremberg and Italy, a few pieces from Austria, and some from Burgundy. Maximilian had no qualms about mixing and matching different styles of armor, depending on what he was doing and how technology developed. He helped design some of the armor himself, and was about as hands-on as a monarch could be.

I don’t know if there is an e-book edition. If there is, you will need a larger e-reader or tablet, because of the illustrations.

The down side of this book is that it is very specialized, and it is very heavy. It is a lap-full. It’s not quite a coffee table book, but close.

I enjoyed it greatly, and will go back to it on a regular basis because of personal interest and because of teaching about Maximilian. The Met does have a smaller, paperback with fewer pictures that is sort of a “greatest hits” from the exhibition, if you just want to see a little of Maximilian’s world.

FTC notice: I was given this book as a gift and received no remuneration from the publisher or editor for this review.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Last Knight

  1. Ah, you’ve triggered some memories. During a high school field trip to NYC, two decades back, we finished one of the activities early (maybe the Guggenheim?), so one of the art teachers asked if anybody wanted to run over to the Met with her. We walked there at a fast pace, but it still took longer than anticipated, leaving us just barely enough time to check out one gallery – armor! It was amazing. Hundreds of years of armor, some so elaborately ornamented they may have been ceremonial, others a bit more utilitarian. Alas, we had to run back (literally) to catch the buses back to NJ. I’ve got to go back someday – even if I’m living in Ohio these days.

    • When I sang with a choir that went to NYC (adult) Mom and I broke away from the others and went to the Old Masters part of the Met. Ah, it was wonderful. Even with only two and a half hours, it was a delight. When I was a teen and my church (adult) choir sang at Lincoln Center, Mom and I broke loose and went up to the Met’s Cloisters Museum, so I could see the Hunting of the Unicorn.

      If only the Met were not located in NYC. *Sigh*

  2. E-book? Better hook up to a very large screen display to see the details. 60″ is a minimum. I saw some of the collection too, and got a sore neck from staring at armor sections, wondering how it was assembled and how it got decorated.

  3. Perhaps this is a stupid question, but why does an art museum have such a gigantic collection of military hardware? “Art” to me is paintings, drawings, sketches, photographs, sculptures… Arms and armor just don’t seem to fit.

    I’ve never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I know what you mean when you say you wish “if only it wasn’t in NYC”. You know that big ol’ building at 79th and Central Park West, known to most as “The American Museum of Natural History” and to me as “Heaven on Earth”? I really wish I could go there without going into NYC…

    • Art can include works of craftmanship which would fit much old armor & weapons.

      While the armor & weapons may have intended to use on the field of battle often the owner wanted to show that he could afford armor & weapons that were more than simple armor & weapons.

      And then there was armor not meant to be used on the field of battle were intended to be seen as objects of beauty (which can be considered art).

    • The Metropolitan collects darned near anything in either high art or in crafts. The have amazing collections of furniture, jewelry, instruments, china, serving ware you name it. Probably outside the Smithsonian’s collection one of the most extensive of any sorts of objects. As for armor many of the pieces they have were NOT for actual use. Blued steel with gold leaf and inlay. These are essentially dress uniforms for Monarchs that would not have been used in combat except in absolute extremity.

  4. There used to be in Worcester (MA) the Higgins Armory. It was originally the collection of a scion of the Higgins steel family started in the early 20th century and buying up anything he could find. It had been housed in the upper floors of what had been the Higgins steel factory (itself a unique art deco steel building). However that company went out of business in the 90’s and over time the Armory’s funding dwindled and they lost their lease on their building. The collection was quite extensive second only in the United states to that of the Metropolitan in NYC. The collection was turned over to the Worcester art museum itself a little gem. If you Like impressionists go, they have a fairly large set of impressionist and post impressionist painters. They do display parts of the Higgins collection, but they have considerably less floor space devoted to it. Well worth the visit should you find yourself in central Massachusetts (though why one would do this intentionally is unclear :- ) )

      • Just checked their website. They say they have s new display area for the Higgins collection and related items.

      • Unless you’re coming from NYC or further Methuen is no where near Worcester :-), they’re about 1.5 hours apart by highway.

        Didn’t know the museum had renovated the display area for the Medieval/Renaisance area to hold Higgins stuff. I went to school at WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and actually did a project out at Higgins. My younger daughter was there 2014-2018. Higgins shut down in 2015, but never managed to get to see the stuff after they moved it.

  5. Saw a youtube video of Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame getting a tour of the exhibit. Of particular interest was the special mechanical tournament armor. I definitely need to check out this book!

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