Renaissance aesthetics at their most refined: The exquisite marching armor of Henry II of France

The square is crowded, dusty and bustling. Even the heat and cramped space did not deter people from continuing to try to squeeze into the already packed meeting venue. What are people looking at? It didn’t take long to realize where all eyes were pointing, with hands clenched and bodies pushing each other closer to the shining, majestic presence sitting on the back of the mighty steed. – the famous marching king in armor.

The marching armor of Henry II of France is a suit of armor that once belonged to the French monarch, Henry II. It should be mentioned here that the marching armor mentioned in this article is the one on display today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This suit of armor is believed to date from the mid-16th century. During that time, Europe was experiencing the Renaissance, today remembered for its cultural and artistic achievements. This artistic flourishing can also be seen in the production of elaborately decorated armor. This type of armor, known as marching armor, is perhaps a lesser-known example of the artistic achievements achieved during the Renaissance. That of Henry II is a good example of this type of armor.

Parade armor of Henry II of France. (Public domain)

French King En Vogue with the latest armor trends
Henry II was the son of the French king, Francis I, and ruled France from 1547 to 1559. Henry was a patron of Renaissance culture and a lover of the arts. Among other things, the king continued to rebuild the Louvre, which his father had begun, and he appreciated literature, especially poetry. In addition, he is said to always dress in the latest fashion wherever he appears.

Henry II, King of France. ( Public domain ) He always likes to wear the latest fashions.

The king’s efforts to keep up with the latest trends can also be seen in the armor he uses. In the 16th century, armor was no longer just a protective suit for the wearer on the battlefield but became exquisite works of art. Such armor was produced in many places in Europe. However, the artistic peak of elaborate armor was reached in Italy between the 1530s and the 1560s. The most famous armorer of this period was Filippo Neroli, whose workshop was in Milan. Nerolis produced exquisite armor for their customers, which included some of the biggest names in European aristocracy at the time. One of their suits of armor was owned by Henry II of France and is today owned by a private collector.

The French armorer behind the elaborate suit
On the other hand, the marching armor owned by the Metropolitan Museum, was created by a Frenchman named Étienne Delaine. There are about 20 sketches from the 16th century that support the claim that the armor was created by Delaine. Later additions to the original design were by Jean Cousin the Elder and Baptiste Pellarin. Delaine was, for a time, the king’s chief medalist at the royal mint. Even though she was dismissed, Delaine continued to work for the king. One of his more amazing creations is this suit of armor, said to have been made between 1553 and 1555.

Parade armor of Henry II of France, Museum of Ethnology, Vienna. (PerfectZero/ CC BY 2.0 )

Pattern covering the armor
The marching armor that Delaine created for Henry featured humans as well as characters from Classical mythology. For example, on the shoulder can be seen the Greek god Apollo chasing the goddess Daphne. The same god also appears on the back of the armor, although he kills the monster Python. In the middle of the breastplate there is an image of a Roman warrior receiving an embrace from a group of kneeling women. Overall, the parade armor is said to reflect Henry’s military achievements.

Detail of a Roman warrior on the breastplate. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

In 1939, the Metropolitan Museum acquired this suit of armor with the help of the Harris Brisbane Dick Foundation. It is generally believed that this armor was the most complex type produced in France. The importance of this set of marching armor is further enhanced by the fact that not much of this style of armor has survived today. In some collections, only part of the armor is on display. As so few full suits remain, the Marching Armor of Henry II of France is a unique work that demonstrates the artistic skill of 16th-century armorers.


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