This week, the Art Institute of Chicago unveiled new galleries of medieval and Renaissance art – including the re-installation of the popular arms and armor collection. It is the most ambitious expansion since the Modern Wing opened in 2009.
The curators gave “Chicago Tonight” a tour before it opened to the public.
Phil Ponce: At the heart of the exhibition stands a pair of life-sized armored figures on horseback – one dressed for battle, and one for sport. The arms and armor collection is back on display in spectacular fashion in the new Deering Family Galleries at the Art Institute.
The rooms were specially designed for this permanent installation, where you can find dragons, demons, angels and saints.
Martha Wolff, curator, European painting and sculpture: This was an effort to show works of art from about 1150 to 1600 in context, to suggest their original use and environments, and to show some wonderful major works in their settings, to move from religious art into a kind of a domestic sphere, more intimate personal sphere, and then finally to culminate in our wonderful arms and armor collection.
We felt we needed to highlight the individual works by creating something of an architectural context, something of atmosphere, and also to do a sort of a pacing through the space that would make this transition from the religious to the secular to the more warlike.
Jonathan Tavares, curator, arms and armor: We wanted to evoke a few different major themes for arms and armor; there are three major themes in fact. Arms and armor for use in war of course, as protection and defense in war, then there’s also for parade, for display, and lastly it’s as sports equipment for tournaments, for the joust.
In the first room you enter into something like a guard chamber, where these bodyguards stand sentinel, as if you’re entering like an ante-chamber to an audience hall, then you enter into a large massive armor court that is like an audience hall, and you’re immediately confronted with pieces that are active in the center, they come alive.
Ponce: Alongside all of the armor – are the arms. A weapons room features baroque gun cabinets that invite further exploration.
The average weight of a suit of armor is 60 pounds. The ceremonial plates of a child weigh only 1 pound.
Tavares: The crown jewel of our collection has to be this Greenwich armor that was created for a nobleman in the court of Elizabeth I. As beautiful and stunning as it is, it was indeed meant for battle.
We have many pieces that were used in battle, as beautifully gilt and decorated as they are, a lot of us find that hard to believe and strange, but it was a different time, where rank and wealth was displayed on your body. But you know, fashion was from the lowest foot soldier right up to the king.
Another major part of the pieces on display here is the costume element, and so much of armor really is steel costume, steel clothing of its time, and so we wanted to do this as historically accurate as possible. And we reached out to this group, the School of Historical Dress in London, and they hand stitched our costumes, especially for our foot combat at the back there. The pantaloons or the trunk hose that the one figure is wearing: 37 people embroidered that over several months of time.
We tried to bring this fullness of period splendor as much as it would’ve been. A lot of people will think the feathers are over the top. We actually know from period sources that the feathers could be even 2 or 3 feet taller than what you’re seeing.
Ponce: One monumental masterpiece comes from a chapel that still stands in northern Spain. Painted in 1396, it is one of the oldest paintings in the museum’s collection.
Wolff: We’re standing in front of the altarpiece for Chancellor Pedro Lopez d’Ayala, who was a Spanish statesman, soldier, poet. He was sort of an early Renaissance man.
It’s almost like a comic strip in the way the narrative works out, that it tells the story of the life of Christ, beginning with the annunciation, and going all the way through with the scenes of his preaching, his resurrection, and then the assumption of the virgin.
Tavares: As an art museum we do display really the very highest end, the artistic merits … the very best of its time.
Wolff: We’re lucky to have those things that we can bring together in a suggestive way.
The Art Institute’s permanent galleries of Medieval Art, Arms and Armor are now open to the public. Visit the museum’s website to learn more.
March 13: Pinball machines and Ed Paschke paintings go side by side as a suburban museum becomes an artful arcade.
March 2: Two new shows at the Chicago Cultural Center open doors to a local arts movement from 50 years ago.
Dec. 30: Beginning Monday, city residents under the age of 18 will no longer be required to pay the $14 admission fee at the museum in Grant Park thanks to a gift from a pair of Kansas donors.