Amazing Hercules Armor of Maximilian II of Austria

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 Armor is steel clothing. Like shirts and trousers, it offers protection to the human body: textiles help to insulate the body from the cold and shield it against the sun; metal absorbs the blows of swords and lances. But like clothes made of costly silk or wool, bespoke armor once served to enhance the wearer’s image and display his social rank. Plate armor was one of the most expensive and most noble articles of men’s clothing in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was worn not only in battle but also at triumphal processions, parades and festive tournaments. Armor documented its wearer’s high social standing and his political and military power.

It therefore stands to reason that armor was subject to the same trends in fashion as textile clothing. Indeed, the stylistic changes of textile fashions are closely mirrored in armor. For example, in the late fifteenth century, Burgundian noblemen wore long pointed shoes and tight-fitting clothes that emphasized elegance and weightlessness and accentuated the wearer’s figure. The armor produced north of the Alps around 1480 looked exactly the same; even the elegant poulaine (the long, pointed toe of a shoe) was molded in steel. But in the early sixteenth century the influence of the Italian Renaissance grew stronger, and round, voluminous forms became fashionable. Once again, the new style was enthusiastically taken up in both textile clothing and armor.

Regardless of its form or shape, a piece of armor or article of clothing reflects the Zeitgeist, expressing the period’s taste and ideals. A good example is the Hercules Armor, made about 1555/60 for Archduke (later Emperor) Maximilian II; its entire surface is covered with ornamentation and mythological scenes. Maximilian’s armor symbolizes the universal claim to power of the Habsburg Empire under Emperor Charles V, a claim buttressed by references to antique precursors, alleged ancestors and the Catholic faith. Maximilian’s Hercules Armor is one of the great masterpieces of the refined and sophisticated style typical of the armorers active in Flanders and northern France in the 1550s and 1560s. One of the most important centers of this style was Antwerp, and one of its leading master’s was Eliseus Libaerts (before 1530 – after 1569), to whom some art historians attribute the Hercules Armor now in Vienna. We know that Libaerts produced similar works for the courts of Sweden and Saxony in the 1560s, among them the armor made for Eric XIV of Sweden (1533-1577) in 1560/62 (Stockholm, Livrustkammaren, inv. no. 2505) and the so-called Hercules armor for man and horse (1563/65; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, inv. no.100). 

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