From a distance, it looks like flowers are etched into the circular cheek piece on an elaborate metal helmet, part of a 16th-century set of armor. Looking more closely, however, it becomes clear they are actually skulls, darkly shaded eyes dominating the four outlined shapes.
Doctoral student Elliot Mackin was intrigued by the skulls while examining the armor during a behind-the-scenes class with curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Looking at the helmet, I noticed on one side that the cheek piece was an abstracted flower form, but on the other was a detail of four skulls arranged to look like the petals of a flower. I think that’s exciting. A flower on one side and skulls on the other. Why have a skull?” Mackin says. “There is this desire by art historians, we want decoration to be meaningful, we want it to tell us something more.”
The discovery on the blackened set of German armor, dated to 1560, delighted the museum’s associate curator of arms and armor, Dirk Breiding, who was leading the workshop with 14 graduate students, nine from Penn, and five from Johns Hopkins and Temple universities.
“He said: ‘Oh, what about the skulls on that helmet?’ And I said: ‘Skulls?’ I had never noticed them before. Never. They are arranged in a rosette shape, and I've seen so many rosettes in that place that I just took it to be rosette,” Breiding says. “That was a wonderful revelation. I’ll have to go back to the file to see if anybody else has noticed that.”
Giving students the chance to examine objects up close and make their own discoveries was the goal of last semester’s course, Concepts of Authorship in the Early Modern Era, says Shira Brisman, assistant professor in early modern art in the School of Arts and Sciences.
The graduate seminar in Penn’s History of Art Department met at the museum once a week for workshops co-taught by Brisman with museum curators and conservators to study art and objects in the collection. One week they made a field trip to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. to examine prints and visit the painting conservation lab.
“The idea behind the course is to meet in the museum rather than in a classroom with a slide projector and a PowerPoint. Every class is based on an object encounter,” Brisman says. The seminar is part of an object-based learning initiative partnership between Penn and the Philadelphia Museum of Art funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The multiyear grant has supported workshops, seminars, and fellowships since its inception in 2012.
Although wide-ranging in the types of objects studied, the idea of authorship and authenticity was the focus of this course. The class even looked at some forgeries, because, Brisman says, sometimes a 19th-century effort to make something that looks like it was from the 14th century becomes an interesting part of the history of art.
“The aim of the course is to introduce the students to the methods of research that are conducted in the museum,” Brisman says, “From the initial question of authorship—who made what—a sequence of other questions unfold about collaboration, specialization, and the emergence of signatures.”
Also important is understanding the role of the workshop artisans during that period, the particular roles many different people might have played in producing a piece, she says. The goal is to ask questions beyond who made the work of art and “decentralize the concept of authorship, taking other approaches to understanding the work of art and its function in society, what people did with this object,” she says.
Access to experts and collections
The students studied several types of primarily European artworks from the period of 1400 to 1800: six weeks on painting, two weeks on wood and metal sculpture, three weeks on prints. They had unique access to the artworks, examining a 500-year-old painting under restoration with microscope goggles, feeling the weight of a silver vessel and looking at its underside for marks, seeing prints on paper free of glass and frame, all while asking questions of the curators, conservators, and other experts.
The daylong workshop focused on arms and armor, one of the most extensive and popular collections in the museum, considered one of the best in the world. Breiding spoke with students in detail about the armor on display in the museum galleries, and then they went to a classroom above the galleries to examine two sets of armor up close.
Students even got to try on some replicas that had been used in reenactments. Passing around helmets and defenses for the hands (gauntlets) and legs (cuisses and greaves), they each took turns trying them on, noting their weight as well as the effects on bodily mobility, vision, and hearing.
“It was a treat,” says Mackin, a first-year doctoral student, a medievalist interested especially in Byzantine art. “As a scholar, being able to handle these things, like armor, is incredibly valuable. If we are talking about material that was worn and used, to be able to see it and touch it really enriches how you think about it and write about it.”
Juliet Glazer, a first-year doctoral student in Penn’s joint program in music and anthropology, is focusing her academic research on how people interact with musical instruments, especially stringed instruments made in the 1500s through 1700s. A violinist herself, she took Brisman’s course to learn more about the European world during that period.
“I’m interested in multisensory experiences of objects and of art, and am also interested in thinking about how people interact with objects they believe to be historic. How do we try to recreate historic experiences? Trying on armor definitely felt like an attempt to do that,” says Glazer. “When I tried on the helmet, I felt separate from the room and felt protected, so perhaps that’s how an early modern person felt while wearing a suit of armor.”
She says speaking to the museum conservators and curators was especially valuable because she is interested in “how people relate to very old objects, how those objects compel people to care for them, what conservation techniques are required to make the objects last, and what attributes of worth help them endure.
Armor as ‘wearable art’
While taking the students through the gallery, Breiding revealed that armor was affected by fashion. The custom-made suits of armor reflect trends, like the shape of the foot, changing from a pointed toe to a square one. Details in the decoration were often important as well.
“This would have looked revolutionarily different,” Breiding told the class, highlighting the features of the magnificent set of armor with prominent gold etchings, on the horse and rider featured in the middle of the central arms and armor gallery. “He’s really trying to impress everybody.”
Jalen Chang, a first-year doctoral student in history of art specializing in the 19th century, says the workshop made it possible to approach the armor more closely than he would have on his own, allowing him to see the fine detail in the gold embellishments.
“It was cool to think of a piece of armor also as a piece of clothing, beholden to both functionality and fashion,” Chang says. “Do you feel confident when you see an opposing army wearing armor that is outdated in style?”
Armor, Breiding says, is a form of sculpture. “These objects were meant to be used. They were meant to be worn. They are wearable art, wearable design,” he says. “That is something that you only get from seeing them, not through glass, but firsthand, and ideally handling them.”
In addition to having the students try on the reproductions, Breiding had them compare and contrast the two genuine armors, the German one with the skulls, and an Italian one for tournament use on foot.
“When you look at the combination of embossing, etching, gilding and having that offset against the polished surfaces, stylistic differences, taste and fashion,” he says. “I wanted them to note the subtle differences so they might get an indication to what extent decoration can differ within a country, between different centers, but also between larger regions of Europe.”
In terms of authorship and armor, it’s not just who made the armor but the individual wearing the armor. “They are fashioning a sense of self,” Brisman says. “They are authors of their own image.”
Mackin had a few ideas about why skulls were incorporated into the blackened set of armor, etched with silver. At that time in history, he says, there was an interest in the memento mori, a reminder of humility and death that when expressed on expensive objects “cautions against vanity,” a paradox that people at that time might have found delightful.
“That’s how it struck me when I saw that—a skull protecting the skull,” he says. “I imagine it was fun for the artist and fun, in a sobering way, for the wearer.”
Mackin worked at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., and the Hillwood Museum, before coming to Penn, which he chose in part because of the classes created in partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“I want to make the art I care about accessible and meaningful to broad audiences. One of challenges working with this medieval material is to find avenues to make it meaningful,” he says. “A great feature of handling the material is that it really brings out the human aspect. This helmet, this gauntlet, isn’t just an old thing, it is a thing of value that was worn by a human person.”
Homepage photo: The Concepts of Authorship in the Early Modern Era course and workshops were funded by a multi-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in a partnership between Penn and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The collaborative program is meant to foster greater appreciation for the direct, close-up study of works of art as integral to the discipline of art history.