San Antonio Museum of Art's 'Age of Armor' looks at design, functionality in time of knights

The traveling exhibition allows viewers to see works from one of the largest collections of arms and armor.

click to enlarge These elaborate suits of armor, all originating from the 16th century, are on display at SAMA. - Courtesy Photos / San Antonio Museum of Art
Courtesy Photos / San Antonio Museum of Art
These elaborate suits of armor, all originating from the 16th century, are on display at SAMA.
During medieval times, armor conveyed status and sophistication while also protecting the wearer. Both members of the aristocracy and battlefield warriors wore it to project a knightly image.

The San Antonio Museum of Art’s traveling exhibition “The Age of Armor: Treasures from the Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Museum” allows viewers to see works from one of the largest collections of arms and armor. The exhibition comprises more than 80 works, including several full suits of plate armor and an array of weapons.

“The Age of Armor” will be on view at SAMA’s Cowden Gallery from Feb. 16 through May 12.

The exhibition is originally produced by the Worcester Art Museum. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Museum includes more than 1,500 items, spanning from ancient Egypt to 19th century Japan. At the heart of this collection are the steel suits of armor from medieval and Renaissance Europe.

“The Age of Armor goes beyond the traditional image of ‘knights in shining armor’ to take a closer look at why suits of armor were created in early modern Europe and who wore them,” Chief Curator Jessica Powers in a statement. “The exhibition also explores the long legacy of

European armor as seen in the work of contemporary artists through its influence in popular culture.”

The exhibition explores the practical uses of arms and armor on the battlefield and in jousting tournaments while celebrating the exquisite craftsmanship behind these metallic masterworks.

It also explores developments in metalworking technology and advances in weaponry in late medieval and early modern Europe.

With the increasing use of firearms on the battlefield, the use of armor eventually declined.

However, even after armor stopped being effective at stopping deadly projectiles, it continued to be seen as a symbol of virtue and strength during ceremonial events.

While full suits of armor could weigh as much as 60 pounds, the pieces were designed so wearers could easily move. Because of its extravagant detail, including embossing, it can be seen as movable or wearable sculpture.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a suit embossed with motifs symbolizing love and war. Depicted on the breastplate are the Roman gods Mars and Venus as they reach out to each other, symbolizing love and war. The image presents the knight as “a warrior on the battlefield and a courtier in times of peace.”

To create this piece, an artisan would have hammered each detail from the inside, creating a low-relief sculpture. Because the armor was significantly compromised from the intense embossing technique, it was meant to be worn for ceremonial purposes only.

“The exhibition reveals the extraordinary design, engineering, and innovation in over eighty objects, including swords, daggers, halberds, breastplates, helmets, pistols, muskets, and several full suits,” SAMA Kelso Director Emily Ballew Neff said in a statement. “A number of works from SAMA’s permanent collection further contextualizes the enduring and complicated legacy of weapons throughout all cultures across the globe.”

One work included from SAMA’s own contemporary collection is a piece from Mexican artist Pedro Reyes 2013 series Disarm. This work helps draw parallels between current times in Mexico and its history. In this piece, Reyes presents what appears to be a xylophone made from parts of firearms.

For this project, Reyes collaborated with the Mexican government, which confiscated and destroyed weapons from the Cartels. Here, Reyes turns these instruments of death into instruments supporting life and positivity through the joy of music. The work represents a symbolic transformation that could be both physical or spiritual.

Near the end of the gallery, the exhibition asks visitors to ponder whether the time of knights is truly gone. At this point, it suggests that the design of armor continues to permeate popular culture, in particular superheroes to who wear similarly extravagant protective suits during their big-screen and comic book adventures.

“The Age of Armor: Treasures from the Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Museum,”

10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday and Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, on view February 16 through May 12, San Antonio Museum of Art, 200 W. Jones Ave., (210) 978-8100,

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