The Metropolitan Museum of Art titled its latest exhibition, which showcases armor commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, “The Last Knight.” It’s a fitting name for a show displaying pieces made during the medieval era’s final gasps. But Maximilian’s story could easily be called “The First Influencer.”
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Maximilian’s death in 1519, but the power-hungry monarch’s story has piercing parallels to modern day leaders. Though he ascended into power through a strategic marriage to Duchess Mary of Burgundy, Maximilian solidified his control through relentless propaganda campaigns.
As the Renaissance loomed, the emperor cultivated a chivalrous, heroic image straight out of Camelot. His preferred power flex came in armor. Met curators, led by Pierre Terjanian, pulled together over 180 objects from around the world for this exhibit.
The first thing one sees upon entering the wing is a suit of armor made for one (poor) horse who had to carry it, and presumably a rider, into battle.
There are spiked gauntlets originally worn by Maximilian, which wouldn’t have looked out of place onstage with Lady Gaga during her “Born This Way” era. Visitors will also find an A-line skirt made out of armor, a breastplate with an extremely intimidating spike jutting out the heart, and a tiny child’s suit made for Maximilian’s son.
Terjanian told The Daily Beast that most of the armor has not been weighed, but he wagered the heaviest is “about 80 pounds.” The emperor owned so many weapons and suits of metal that he purchased an entire home just to fill it with his bounty.
“Maximilian wanted control over his image, and he wanted to be instantly recognizable,” Terjanian said. “He’s rarely portrayed as a modest man.”
Maximilian, who preferred to be portrayed in profile, oozes a commanding serenity in the portraits on display, including one from 1502 by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis. The middle aged emperor looks downright steely, staring off purposefully. “He looks experienced, like an almost indestructible figure,” Terjanian said.
If desired, one can draw comparisons between Maximilian’s status obsession and Donald Trump’s shameless promotions, of which there are too many to mention here. Like the president, Maximilian rose quickly through the ranks due to his status as an heir, and he worked hard to ensure that his children carried on the legacy he craved.
His sons, Philip I and Philibert II, played with tiny toy jousters, which have been preserved for five centuries and can be seen as early ancestors of army men figurines. It gets less cute when show notes describe his daughter Margaret of Austria as a “political instrument” for Maximilian and his French equivalents.
Similarly, Bianca Maria Sforza, who in 1494 would enter into a pretty miserable, childless marriage with the emperor, is dubbed “the instrument of dynastic negotiations with positive outcomes” between Maximilian and her uncle, the Italian prince Ludovico.
Scholars often cite Maximilian as the first ruler to realize the potential of art as propaganda. One of the museum’s walls contains his quote, “He who makes no memory of himself during his lifetime will have none after his death, and will be forgotten with the tolling of the final knell. Therefore the money that I extend on perpetuating my memory will not be lost.”
The museum is organized chronologically, beginning not with Maximilian’s early childhood or family background, but his first marriage to Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, which began his ascent into a storied royal lineage.
It’s possible to wander the maze of rooms containing armored suits, stained glass windows, building panels, portraits, and letters from Philip to his constituents without paying much attention to his life story.
History buffs can get caught up in the detailed timelines and dates listed on the Met’s many wall panels. But anyone who just wants to see Game of Thrones costumes is welcome to ogle at chainmail through the plexiglass.
The people who entered the emperor’s orbit—wives, children, political connections—are represented in imagery, but the gut of the exhibit is based on the artwork and military outfits Maximilian commissioned. For an exhibit based around one singular figure, it feels entirely devoid of personality.
Rather than craft his own identity, Maximilian’s collection projected a display of power in the most generic sense. You will leave the exhibit wondering how anyone managed to carry 80 pounds of chainmail on their back, but you will not feel closer to the man who ordered it made.
It feels entirely devoid of personality for an exhibit based around one singular figure; rather than craft his own identity, Maximilian projects power in its most generic sense.
So out of all the war-hungry monarchs of European history, what makes this one worthy of precious Met real estate? The exhibit’s title, “The Last Knight,” refers to the almost mythic reputation Maximilian later earned, as his life straddled the end of the middle ages and beginning of the early modern era. On display are both Excalibur-like swords and realistic portraits painted in chiaroscuro style.
Despite his financial struggles and political squabbles, the emperor kept commissioning new work, willing his spot into the history books. This exhibit exists because Maximilian ensured people would still talk about him, five hundred years later.
A young man when the printing press was first invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, Maximilian came of age alongside the radical invention, and utilized books as tools of communication, too. He commissioned illustrated novels with brightly-colored scenes depicting him as a hero.
A surprising amount of these 500 year-old relics are on view behind glass cases, one with annotation from Maximilian. Bibliophiles, walk away from the Instagrammable horse armor and head straight to an intricately decorative prayer book which once belonged to the emperor’s father-in-law.
Max Hollein, director of The Met, also tried to make the ruler’s story relevant to most pressing issues of today, saying at a preview that Maximilian's “battles over borders and beliefs affected many lives.”
Indeed, in 1509 the HRE mandated that all Jewish books be destroyed—a sobering thought to remember when marveling at all of the collection’s shiny gold things.