The Higgins Armor Exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art and Armor Collecting in America

by Ruben C. Cordova May 8, 2024
Portrait of a white man next to medieval armor

Alfred Jonniaux, “John Woodman Higgins” (detail), 1953, oil on canvas, 72 7/16 × 61 × 3 1/8 inches, collection of the Worcester Art Museum. Photo: Worcester Art Museum.

Black and white photo of a man holding a sword surrounded by armor

John Woodman Higgins brandishing a sword in his hands in the Great Gallery, surrounded by suits of armor, with a painting depicting a king in the background. Photo:

John Woodman Higgins (1874-1961), president of the Worcester Pressed Steel Company in Worcester, Massachusetts, lived in a “‘house of the future’ filled with steel art and steel marvels…. His favorite color was ‘stainless steel’” (“Higgins Armory Museum (Gone),” Worcester, before it became part of the “Rust Belt,” was known as “Steel City.” Higgins’ unadulterated love for this strong, shiny metal was so powerful that Worcester Art Museum director Matthias Waschek declared: “For everything metal, he was like a magnet” (Ted Loos, “What Comes Next, After the Troops Are Dismissed,” New York Times, March 19, 2014). 

Were he a Bond villain, Higgins would surely have been the Auric Goldfinger of steel. Enchanted by chivalric lore and bedazzled by metallic luster, Higgins built a remarkable museum collection of arms and armor, second in size in the United States only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Qualitatively, it ranks with two other museum collections behind the Met, those at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. Whereas Philadelphia is particularly strong in early European armor, Higgins collected more ancient and non-western examples.

As a steel magnate, Higgins appreciated the fact that armor was perhaps the supreme product of the steelworker’s craft. A man’s armor was a custom-tailored suit that protected life and limb. It fit like a glove, and it was equally flexible. Armor, hammered out of sheets of steel, mirrored men’s couture, with strong geographic as well as period accents. Plate armor (which gradually supplanted chain mail) and firearms arose together. For centuries, they performed a deadly tango, especially during the Renaissance, in battles that helped determine the course of empires. Armor initially held the advantage; gradually, as firearm technology increased, steel was forced to yield to the might of gunpowder. Even after armor lost its protective utility against firearms, armor experienced a final, grand fluorescence as imperial fashion, one that had social, political, and even religious connotations. Now impotent against firearms, armor nonetheless continued to confer elite splendor as well as legitimacy to lords, monarchs, and emperors. 

Higgins becomes a Collector and Opens a Museum Adjacent to His Factory

Photo of an armor collection in a home

The Higgins home at 80 William Street with suits of armor, c. 1930. Photo: Worcester Art Museum.

During a 1927 family vacation to Europe, Higgins saw museums that exhibited practical objects, which became a source of inspiration for his future museum. The Armory’s 1928 certification of incorporation noted that the museum would be devoted to “the study and investigation of the art of metal working of all times” (Walter J. Karcheski, “Steel Men … Man of Steel: John Woodman Higgins and his Armory,” Man at Arms 12, No. 1, January/February 1990, p. 16, note 5). In an undated manuscript, Higgins paid homage to the armor metal smiths of past eras. He referred to them as “our predecessors.” Higgins also made parallels with their work. Additionally, he implied direct continuity with these accomplished forebears: “We engineers apply those armorers’ techniques to modern armor. A battleship is armor for a thousand warriors” (Karcheski, “Steel Men,” p. 17, note 6).

Higgins’ earliest collecting efforts were not especially impressive. In a 1927 letter to his armor-collecting mentor, Bashford Dean, arms curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (who is discussed in detail below), Higgins recalls that he started collecting armor in Italy “20 years ago, but my resolution was found in Christie’s Sale last June in London,” when he evidently bought some minor objects at the auction of the Radziwill collection (“Steel Men,” p. 16, note 1). According to Walter J. Karcheski, curator at the Higgins Armory at the time he wrote the article cited above, Higgins made a few purchases during and after World War I but bemoaned the lack of a really good, museum-quality suit of armor.

In 1928, with the strong encouragement of Dean – and after a good deal of haggling – Higgins took the bold step of purchasing seven expensive suits of armor from the famous and controversial art dealer Joseph Duveen (Karcheski, “Steel Men,” p. 12; Kary Ashley Pardy, An Institutional History of the Higgins Armory Museum and Its Relationship with Worcester, Massachusetts, Doctoral dissertation, College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Carolina, 2013, p. 4. Karcheski refers to this purchase as Higgins’ “first truly important acquisition of armor” (“Steel Men,” p. 12). 

In Higgins’ eyes, steel was a sublime material, perfect “for man’s supreme expression – Art” (quoted in “Steel Men,” Ibid). Higgins kept his armor at his office and his home. He also lent some to the Worcester Art Museum. As the collection grew, his wife encouraged him to house it elsewhere. Higgins decided to open a museum by 1927 (documented by sketches from his architect), if not earlier. 

Interior of a home with a collection of armor

Interior of Higgins Armory Museum Great Hall in 1931. Photo: Higgins Armory Museum.

The Higgins Armory Museum, built at a cost of $300,000, opened in 1931, in a large building that wrapped around his factory. It had two wings, an “ancient” one for armor, and a “modern” one for contemporary industrial steel products. A catwalk led directly from Higgins’ museum to his factory, which he regarded as the “biggest exhibit of all” (quoted in “Steel Men,” Ibid.).

Image of a gothic gallery with armor

Gothic Gallery installation with Rose Window. Photo: InCollect.

Architecturally, the museum had an innovative steel and glass façade – the first multi-story structure of this type in the United States. The façade gave way to a “soaring central hall – half castle, half cathedral – overlooked by mezzanine galleries, and at one end, a gigantic rose window” (Matthias Waschek, “A Worcester Legacy, A Global Heritage,” The Age of Armor: Treasures from the Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester Art Museum, p. 4). The interior was modeled on Prince Eugene of Savoy’s Hohenwerfen Castle, located in Austria, which was also a source of some of the armor Higgins collected. 

Bashford Dean, Armor Aficionado and Mentor to Armor Collectors

Black and white photo of a man wearing armor in a field

Bashford Dean in c. 1575 Italian infantry armor (from his collection), at his home in Riverdale, New York, 1920: Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Steel City industrialist utilized an armored knight for his corporate logo, which attests to his continued interest in – and admiration for – armor. How did he find his way to serious collecting? A key development was a connection to patriotic manufacturing. As the U.S.’s entry into WWI became likely, the army “initiated a project to reinvent the helmet for the modern age” (John Woodman Higgins and His Armory, video, Worcester Art Museum, January 12, 2023). 

The brilliant polymath Bashford Dean was, for a time, simultaneously Curator of Fishes at the Natural History Museum, Professor of Vertebrate Zoology at Columbia University, and the Honorary Curator of Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He resigned from his other professional activities in 1912 (because he loved human armor even more than armored fish) to become the founding Curator of the Department of Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan. 

The U.S. Army chose Dean to head the helmet redesign project. Dean chose Higgins as a manufacturing partner for the helmets. Importantly for our purposes, Dean also mentored Higgin’s armor collecting efforts. He also mentored most other prominent U.S. collectors of armor, including Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch, whose collection is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (see Calvin Tomkins, Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1989, rev. ed., p. 149-164; 188-189; Donald J. La Rocca, “Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department, 1904-1929,” video, Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 29, 2012; Donald J. La Rocca, “Bashford Dean and the Development of Helmets and Body Armor during World War I” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000; Stuart W. Pyhrr, “Armor for America: The Duc de Dino Collection,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 47, 2012, p. 183, 209-210). 

Dean was given the rank of Major of Ordnance and was also appointed Chairman of the Committee on Helmets and Body Armor of the National Research Council. In these capacities, he often traveled to Washington D.C., and sometimes to London and Paris. All but one of Dean’s designs for helmets and body armor were rejected, but this work had long-term implications: “his work provided an important foundation for the subsequent development of the protective gear worn by U.S. soldiers in all later conflicts.” Moreover, Dean’s recognition of the need for body armor, while “radical” in 1917, is “readily accepted as a vital part of a soldier’s battle gear now. Dean’s pioneering efforts helped pave the way for this life-saving change in attitudes toward the use of modern body armor.” Additionally, Stephen Grancsay (1897–1980), Dean’s successor at the Met, made important contributions to helmet design during WWII (La Rocca, “Bashford Dean and the Development of Helmets and Body Armor during World War I”). Originally hired by Dean because of his typing ability, Grancsay quickly proved his mettle. He had a long, distinguished curating career at the Met, and he authored Catalogue of Armor: The John Woodman Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester: Higgins Armory Museum, 1961. (Unfortunately, this title is not available via An armor curator and his protégé were consequently responsible for the revival of body armor for modern warfare.

Dean, in fact, advocated for body armor in the New York Times before the U.S. entered WWI: “Should the Warrior of Today Wear Armor?; Professor Bashford Dean, Curator of Armor at the Metropolitan Museum, Favors It and Tells Interesting Facts About Protection in Warfare,” New York Times, September 19, 1915.

Photo of the helmet of armor

Manufactured by Worcester Pressed Steel, Prototype Experimental Helmet Model 2, 1917, steel, 10 5/8 × 10 5/8 × 14 9/16 inches, 2 lb (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.2. Photo: © 2021 Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.

An experimental prototype for one of Dean’s helmet designs, reproduced above, was one of several produced at Higgins’ factory. It is featured in the SAMA exhibition. 

Photo of a man in military uniform

American experimental light armor, with helmet model no. 5, from Bashford Dean’s “Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare” (1920). Photo: “Of Arms and Men,” p. 20.

Dean, of course, made more practical helmet designs than the one in the exhibition, but they were rejected, according to Stuart W. Pyhrr, because they were too similar to the German helmet (which would be confusing in battle), or they would have been too difficult to manufacture (Of Arms and Men: Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan, 1912-2012, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2012, p. 20). 

 Gothic Revival, Armor Collecting, Bashford Dean, and Clarence Mackay

In order to create a context for Higgins’ armor collection and museum, let us consider the relevance of the Gothic revival. Pyhrr traces the taste for armor back to the Gothic revival. Real and faux castles were furnished with complementary period material: tapestries, stained glass, and armor. The Napoleonic Wars had loosened countless examples of armor from ancestral holdings and city arsenals, and the market for armor boomed. American collectors lagged behind Europeans, but by the end of the 19th century, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont had built an enormous Gothic armor gallery in his home in Newport, Rhode Island (illustrated in Pyhrr, Of Arms and Men, p. 6). Higgins purchased one of the most important Belmont armors after it had passed through the Clarence Mackay collection

While most American arms collectors were content to build a Gothic gallery or two, George F. Harding, Jr., who formed the great armor collection now at the Art Institute, tried to import a German castle to house his collection on the Southside but was frustrated by the mayor. Harding instead built a quixotic two-story turret-like structure in 1927. Replete with secret stairways, a dungeon, a medieval keep, and cannonball-studded exterior walls, it was known locally as “the Castle.” It survived every siege until the one waged by Urban Renewal, which caused the fortress to fall in 1965. The collection entered the Art Institute in the 1980s (see Walter J. Karcheski, Jr., “Essay: George F. Harding, Jr. and His ‘Castle,’” Arms and Armor in The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995). 

Two armor collectors, Rutherford Stuyvesant and William H. Riggs, were appointed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s board when it was incorporated in 1870. (The museum’s first two buildings were Gothic revival style.) The latter collector, who lived in Paris, was a childhood friend of J. P. Morgan, the banker-collector who was one of the most powerful figures at the Metropolitan. Riggs, who was also made a museum vice-president, had been accorded these honors in the hope of obtaining his armor collection. Thus, from the start, the Met had big ambitions in this collecting area. Riggs, skeptical of the museum’s prospects, resigned from his Met Museum offices in 1874 (Pyhrr, Of Arms and Men, p. 4-6).

Newspaper clipping of a collection of armor

Duc de Dino acquisition clipping, New York Times, May 15, 1904. Photo: “Armor for America: The Duc de Dino Collection,” New York Times. The $400,000 amount in the clipping reflects one of the Duc de Dino’s asking prices, rather than the actual selling price.

The Met demonstrated its commitment to armor when it purchased the Duc de Dino collection in 1904 for a staggering $270,000, which was the museum’s largest acquisition expenditure, one that would not be topped for many years to come. In fact, it represented virtually the entire amount of interest that had accrued on the multi-million dollar Jacob S. Rogers bequest. Bashford Dean volunteered to install and catalog the collection. Dean himself formed two important collections of Japanese armor in 1903 and 1905. He installed the first at the Met in 1904 and sold it to the museum at cost (Dean used the money to form the second collection, which he donated to the museum in 1914). Through the Dean and Dino collections, the Met’s armor collection achieved national pre-eminence and international stature (Pyhrr, Of Arms and Men, p. 6-13). Armor collectors looked to the Met and Dean for guidance in a field of collecting that was just becoming established in the U.S. 

Photo of an older white man holding a piece of armor

William Riggs in his armory (holding a treasured breastplate by Giovan Paolo Negroli, c. 1540-45) on the Rue Murillo, Paris, 1913. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dean befriended Riggs and drew on his extensive knowledge of armor. After a long curatorial courtship, in which the disposition of an unprofitable hotel owned by Riggs served as the final stumbling block (see Merchants and Masterpieces, p. 160-164), the Riggs collection, by then the finest private collection in the world, was gifted to the Met in 1913. Rigg’s gift had been anticipated in 1912 when the armor department had been established. The armor was housed in new galleries designed by McKim, Mead, and White, one of which bore the grandiose name Hall of Princes (Pyhrr, Of Arms and Men, p. 15-17; Aleksandr Gelfand, “The Devoted Collector: William H. Riggs and the Department of Arms and Armor,” Metropolitan Museum of Art website, January 16, 2013). It was a suitable name, of course, because one of the appeals of collecting arms was to own works commissioned and worn by royals, nobles, and high-ranking courtiers

World War I and the economic dislocations that followed in its aftermath brought an enormous quantity of armor to the market. Dean collected vigorously for the Met and himself. He even helped to create an arms and armor market in New York by buying collections in Europe and auctioning off all but the most select pieces, which he kept for himself. The Met, some of its trustees, and members of the Armor and Arms Club (Dean had founded the club, and Higgins and Harding were members) were among the buyers. Dean retired from the Met in 1927, but died the next year, unable to complete his Gothic-style armory in Riverdale or see the completed Higgins Armory. But he lived long enough to spur Higgins to make his bold purchases from the dealer Duveen, as noted above. Dean left a quarter of his estate to the Met, and friends and family donated almost another quarter of it to the museum (Pyhrr, Of Arms and Men, p. 27-31).

Higgins made substantial purchases from the Dean estate. According to Karcheski, “these purchases seem to have been an attempt to make permanent the relationship between mentor and pupil” (“Steel Men,” p. 13). In a letter on September 30, 1929, Higgins wrote to the executors of Dean’s estate, expressing a desire for “any momentos [sic] of Dr. Dean,” by which he meant armor (“Steel Men,” p. 17, note 10). Karcheski says Higgins collected more conservatively in the years immediately after the onset of the Great Depression, but he sprang into action when phenomenal opportunities presented themselves later in the decade.

Photo of an interior with many draping tapestries, flags, armor, chairs, and a large fireplace

Clarence Mackay’s armor gallery in Roslyn, New York, c. 1930. Photo: Of Arms and Men.

The two greatest private armor collectors of the age were William Randolph Hearst and Clarence Mackay, both of whom had grand, period galleries. The former had a three-story penthouse with ribbed vaults on Riverside Drive in New York (see Of Arms and Men, p. 32) and a genuine Welsh castle to house his collection (in addition to many warehouses), which was the largest of his generation. Mackay had a smaller, but more important collection, housed in Harbor Hill, in Roslyn, New York (illustrated above). Both men’s fortunes were devastated by the Great Depression. Mackay was especially hard-hit. He had to resign as a trustee of the Metropolitan in order to sell some of his choicest art and armor to the museum in 1932. Ultimately, both the Met and Higgins bought some of their best armor from Mackay and his estate. Dean’s successor Grancsay tried to save as much of the Mackay collection as he could for the Met. He purchased 500 pieces from the Mackay collection and later resold them to the Met at cost (Pyhrr, Of Arms and Men, p. 32-35). 

When most of the Mackay armor hit the market in 1939, armor prices (which had been driven up by competition between Hearst and Mackay) had crashed. Moreover, the outbreak of WWII closed the European market. Higgins bought more than 20 suits of armor that had belonged to Mackay (Mackay and “scores of individual components.” (At one time Higgins counted 100 suits of armor in his collection. After copies and inauthentic suits and elements of suits were deaccessioned, the collection now has about 30 suits of armor.) Higgins had coveted some of these works when they had resided in the collection of his mentor Bashford Dean (“Steel Men,” p. 17, notes 6 and 12). Click here for illustrations of ten of the most important sets of armor that Higgins purchased from the Mackay estate. 

Meanwhile, at the Metropolitan, George C. Stone, who had loaned to the department since 1915, left a collection of more than 4,000 pieces in 1935. This gift was made up of non-European objects (mostly from China, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East), and it served to round out the collection (Pyhrr, Of Arms and Men, p. 35-37). 

The Higgins factory prospered during WWII, as it had during WWI, but Higgins did not make very substantial additions to the collection during the war and the following decade. A composite suit of Maximilian armor constituted a final major purchase on the part of Higgins. It was won at auction, via the Hearst collection, which was still liquidating its enormous holdings of arms and armor in 1952 (“Steel Men,” p. 15). Higgins’ son Carter had taken the helm of the company in 1950. 

As for the Metropolitan, after the acquisition of a few very choice pieces from the Mackay and Hearst collections, the department’s Golden Age of collecting came to an end. Francis Henry Taylor, the Met’s new director, told the department in 1943 that it had “perhaps the most definitive and complete collection in the Museum…. Also one of the world’s most complete and magnificent armories.” He also noted, however, that “… this department, which over too long a period had the lion’s share of purchase funds, must be content for many years to come to rest on its well-gilded laurels and permit the strengthening of other more pressing branches of the collection” (Pyhrr, Of Arms and Men, p. 39). The department resumed making top-tier acquisitions in the 1970s. In addition to Of Arms and Men, see the lecture by Stuart W. Pyhrr, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge, Department of Arms and Armor, “Curators, Collectors, and Dealers: The Growth of the Arms and Armor Collection, 1929 to the Present,” video, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. 

The Lauder gift, noted above, is regarded as the most important armor accession since the pieces Grancsay had purchased from the Mackay estate came to the museum. Lauder, who began collecting armor in 1976, was mentored in this field by Grancsay, and he collected armor with “the Met in mind” as the ultimate beneficiary (Robin Pogrebin, “Ronald Lauder Gives Major Arms and Armor Gift to the Met,” New York Times, December 9, 2020). 

The Closing of the Higgins Armory and its Transfer to the Worcester Art Museum

The twinned fortunes of Higgin’s company and museum rose and fell with Worcester’s industrial economy. The decline of the U.S. steel industry ultimately spelled the doom of both enterprises, as detailed in Kary Ashley Pardy’s dissertation, which is cited and linked above. Higgins died in 1961, and Worcester Pressed Steel declared bankruptcy in 1975.

Mary Louise Wilding-White, Higgins’ daughter, recalls that Higgins enjoyed wearing the armor, in which he would “stalk about the house.” He also fixed labels to the armor with chewing gum and originally allowed children to wear the genuine armor. Subsequently, one person a day could don replica armor (“Medieval Armor Shines in a Worcester Museum,” New York Times, October 19, 1986). 

When the museum closed its doors in 2013, children’s birthday cakes would no longer be sliced by a sword-wielding man in armor, the tradition of “OverKnight” sleepovers came to an end, and children strutted down its Gothic gallery in replica armor for the last time. 

Front cover of the Saturday Evening Post magazine

Saturday Evening Post, September 3, 1962. Photo: eBay. The Higgins Armory inspired a Norman Rockwell painting called “Midnight Snack.” The Maximillian armor in the center had been exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, before passing through the Belmont and Mackay collections. Higgins would no doubt have reveled in this depiction of his armory by the foremost contemporary illustrator of Americana.

Most of the arms and armor collection from this “temple to steelcraft” (until 1970, it had also exhibited other steel objects, from a chastity belt to an airplane) was transferred to the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in 2014, after many years of strained finances. (The museum merger is treated in Pardy’s dissertation, p. 42-46). Over 500 pieces of arms and armor were auctioned in 2013 by Thomas Del Mar, Ltd, in association with Sotheby’s, before the agreement was made with the Worcester Art Museum (according to the Higgins, these deaccessioned objects were deemed unworthy of display). 

Cumulatively, the Higgins armor collection has been winnowed down to a core of 1,500-2,000 pieces (count totals are tricky; full suits of armor, for instance, are counted by the individual part). Deaccessioned works include those the collector bought quickly and somewhat injudiciously prior to the opening of his museum, copies, forgeries, and works that by current standards are regarded to be over-restored. Forgeng estimates that prior to the large-scale deaccessioning of 2000-2013, the armor collection numbered about 3,500 pieces (this total excludes brass rubbings, prints, stained glass, etc.).

Proceeds from deaccessioning were added to the endowment funds conveyed to the Worcester Art Museum. WAM has already begun to augment the armor collection with new acquisitions (Elaine Thompson, “Bond of Steel,” Telegram and Gazette, November 3, 2018). 

According to the Boston Globe, the Higgins Armory had rebuffed offers to buy its collection from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979 and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1985. The latter, ironically, had been founded in 1870, “in large part,” to house an armor collection that was mostly lost in the 1872 Boston fire (Geoff Edgers, “Higgins Armory Museum to Close,” Boston Globe, March 8, 2013). In her dissertation, Pardy (p. 29-30) notes that Ronald Lauder had made offers to buy all or part of the Higgins Armory collection in 1978 and again in 1979. Perhaps the Boston Globe conflated Lauder with the Metropolitan. Lauder pledged 91 superlative objects from his armor collection to the Metropolitan in 2020, and he may have noted his intention to make such a gift when he communicated with the Higgins trustees in the late 1970s. 

The betrothal of the Higgins collection to the Worcester Art Museum was a Steel City fantasy come true: this homegrown collection of metal was saved from out-of-town, more well-heeled metropolitan suitors; the bride came with a dowry of almost $7.5 million; WAM provided her with a stable, long-term home; the collection will also strengthen the economic base of the groom because it will deliver an important visitor demographic. “The Higgins is very, very good in reaching an audience we are not as good at, which is family audiences,” said director Wascheck (Edgers, Boston Globe, March 8, 2013). The integration of the Higgins armor into the WAM has also resulted in dramatically increased fund-raising opportunities (Thompson, Telegraph and Gazette, 2018).

Between 2014 and 2016, Higgins Armory highlights were on view at WAM in the exhibition “Knights!” Since 2021, while the permanent armor galleries are being readied, over 80 choice objects from the Higgins collection have circulated to U.S. museums in the exhibition The Age of Armor. It is currently at the San Antonio Museum of Art through May 12, where the objects are spaciously installed. The exhibition catalog by Jeffrey L. Forgeng, the Worcester Art Museum’s Higgins Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art (he had been the armor curator at the Higgins since 1999), provides a good introduction to the collection and to the functions and development of European armor. Also see the lecture “The Allure of Collecting Arms and Armor,” given by Donald J. LaRocca, Curator, Department of Arms and Armor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, video, June 2, 2015. 

The SAMA Exhibition

Installation view of an exhibition on historical armor

“The Age of Armor” installation shot. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

The Age of Armor was curated by WAM’s Jeffrey Forgeng. The San Antonio presentation was organized by Jessica Powers, Chief Curator and Curator of Art of the Ancient Mediterranean at SAMA. The two museums’ staffs worked together on the layout of the exhibition at SAMA. To connect with SAMA’s collection and community, Powers added nine works from SAMA’s collection, as well as photomurals of two local monuments, the façade of the Cathedral of San Fernando and a Howard Norton Cook mural for the U.S. Post Office, both of which depict men in armor.

Installation shot of armor in a museum gallery

“The Age of Armor” Installation shot. Photo: San Antonio Museum of Art.

Works from SAMA’s permanent collection include two Greek vases, a mail shirt with plate and lamellar armor from India, an anonymous Mexican painting of Santiago from Guanajuato, and two contemporary artworks: Marilyn Lanfear’s Diana’s Huipil with Una Talla and Handwoven Labels and Pedro Reyes’s Disarm (Glockenspiel). The latter is fashioned from firearms that were seized and destroyed. Figurines of Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Iron Man are featured in the exhibition. Given the connection between Dean and Higgins, it would have been appropriate to exhibit modern body armor.

Each object in the exhibition is accompanied by a useful label text. Some of the works, particularly the darker and the more elaborate armor suits, are underlit and would have been shown to better advantage with more powerful spotlights. Greater lighting contrasts would have provided a heightened sense of drama appropriate for this subject matter. Additionally, the dark blue background color doesn’t complement the objects very well. The dark and blackened armor would have looked better against a red or silver background, and the shiny steel objects would look great against a black background. In the context of this exhibition, the latter three colors would have added emotive content by evoking blood, steel, and death.

Antique vase with a terra cotta background and figures painted in black

Amphora (jar) with Aeneas Fleeing Troy, attributed to the Leagros Group, Athens, Greece, c. 510-500 BC, fired and painted clay, San Antonio Museum of Art. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

The Trojan prince Aeneas, who wears a bronze Corinthian helmet, carries his father Anchises on his back as he flees the burning city of Troy. The woman on the right is probably Creusa, Aeneas’ wife. 

Corinthian helmet from armor

Corinthian Helmet, possibly from the Greek colonies in Southern France, about 600–550 BC, bronze, 8 × 7 1/2 × 10 1/2 inches, 3 lb., 10 oz (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Image © 2021 Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.

Though the bulk of the Higgins armor collection dates from the European Renaissance, it also features works from earlier and later periods in Europe, as well as from other parts of the world. 

Photo of traditional antique armor

Workshops of Wolf and Peter von Speyer or Wolf Peppinghorn, Rennzeug (armor for the ‘joust of war’), about 1590–1600, steel, iron, leather, black paint, textile and horsehair stuffing, 93 lb., 1 oz (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Image © 2021 Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.

Armor was highly specialized. The above suit, which is unusually heavy, was designed for the joust, a sport in which knights on horseback charged one another with lances. Note how fully the helmet closes. This was a feature designed to protect the wearer from his foe’s lance. The overhanging portion on the left side, known as a tilt targe, screwed directly onto the knight’s breastplate. It was a target that also served as a shield to absorb the blow of the opponent’s lance.

Like many of his most important armors, Higgins acquired this suit from the Mackay collection.

Photo of antique armor installed in a gallery

Armor for the Plankengestech (joust over the tilt), Northern Germany, c. 1550-75, steel with etching and blackening, brass, modern leather and restorations, weight: 64 lb 6 oz. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

This armor was designed for jousting over a wooden barrier (the tilt) that separated the two combatants. The tilt was added to prevent the knights from colliding with one another. (It is the source of the expression “full-tilt.”) The tilt rendered armor for the lower body less important. 

Note again how fully the helmet closes shut. The slits for breathing through the mouth are strategically situated on the right side, away from the challenging knight’s lance. Henry II (reigned 1547-1559), the king of France, had been killed by a splinter that entered his visor in 1559, demonstrating how dangerous the sport could be. The lozenge-shaped trelliswork reinforcements on the targe are designed to shatter the challenger’s lance. In some jousts, the goal was to unhorse the rival knight (others had complex point systems that included broken lances, etc.). This suit also came from the Mackay collection.

Detail of antique armor

Armor for the Plankengestech (joust over the tilt), (detail). Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Note how skillfully and elaborately the decorative elements are etched into the shield element.

Photo of ancient armor

Pompeo della Cesa, Field Armor from a Garniture (a garniture is a set of armor with interchangeable pieces designed for different purposes), about 1595, steel, iron, brass, gold, silver, leather, fabric, 22 5/16 × 4 1/8 inches, 47 lb., 15 oz (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Image © 2021 Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.

Field armor was head-to-toe armor that was flexible and light enough to be practical in multiple circumstances. The Cleveland Museum of Art refers to Pompeo della Cesa as “the Armani or Gucci of the 1500s; everyone wanted to wear him.” della Cesa had an uncanny ability to replicate patterns and textures found in contemporary luxury textiles. The patterns are derived from ancient Roman examples. della Cesa’s armors are still highly prized today. 

Detail of the breastplate of armor

Pompeo della Cesa, Field Armor from a Garniture (detail). Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

della Cesa’s etching and gilding techniques could emulate the craftsmanship of the finest contemporary velvet brocades. This field armor was one of the pieces that Higgins bought from Duveen at Dean’s behest in 1928. Higgins finally got his “museum piece”–one that any armory would be proud to possess.

Photo of a helmet of armor

Basinet Helm with Aventail (mail hood) and “dog-faced’ visor, probably Germany, c. 1360-70, steel, brass, modern leather, cord, and restorations, 19 x 15 x 16 inches, weight: 6 lb, 2 oz. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

This early work shows how extensively mail was utilized in conjunction with armor. Even after the advent of complete sets of plated armor, mail would subsequently be worn under the plates at the joints of the body. This was one of the works that Higgins purchased from Dean’s estate. 

Photo of helmet of armor

Basinet Helm with Aventail (mail hood) and “dog-faced’ visor (frontal detail). Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

The above detail shows substantial damage and restoration to the visor. The helmet and the visor come from different helmets, and the mail is from yet another suit of armor. 

Portrait of an older white man next to a suit of armor

Alfred Jonniaux, “John Woodman Higgins,” 1953, oil on canvas, 72 7/16 × 61 × 3 1/8 inches, collection of the Worcester Art Museum. Photo: Worcester Art Museum.

Dog-faced visors are popular attractions in armor collections fortunate enough to possess one. They are very unusual and distinctive pieces. Given that this work was previously owned by Higgins’ esteemed mentor, it should come as no surprise that Higgins had it foregrounded in his portrait by Jonniaux.

Installation shot of a suit of armor on view at a museum

“Maximilian” Field Armor holding a warhammer for a horseman, Southern German, about 1525–1530, armor: steel, iron, and leather with modern restorations, 64 lb., 14 oz (weight), warhammer: etched and blackened steel, 22 5/16 × 4 1/8 inches, 2 lb., 12 oz (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Perhaps the most important suit Higgins acquired, this Maximilian armor (named after Maximilian I, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire) came from the Mackay collection in 1940. The armor reflects contemporary fashions: the vertical flutes copy fabric pleats, and the billowing forms mirror those found on fabric shirts and jackets. The plain legs mimic silk stockings, and the clunky, “bear paw” sabatons imitate fashionable shoes of that era.

Photo of a helmet from a suit of armor

Master “MR”, German, from the area of Nuremberg, Comb Morion for the Guard of Christian I or II, Electors of Saxony, about 1585–1595, blackened steel with etched and gilded decoration, brass, textile and leather, 11 × 9 5/8 × 14 1/16 inches, 4 lb. (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Image © 2021 Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.

Power was expressed through the etchings and attachments, as well as the protective utility of the helmet itself.

Detail photo of a suit of armor

Ceremonial Half-Armor with Repoussé Decoration (detail), France, 1580s, modified early 1600s, steel with traces of gilding, modern leather, weight: 8.9 kg (19 lb 10 oz), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

Though little of the original gilding remains on this piece, this French half-armor is the most impressive example of embossed armor that Higgins acquired. All armor begins as a flat piece of steel that is hammered into shape. Embossing (repoussé in French) entails hammering patterns or figures from the rear so that they appear in low relief on the front surface. Such work greatly weakens the armor, making it useless for defensive purposes, though it greatly enhances its artistic and ceremonial appeal. The suit likely did not have a helmet. The owner probably wore a fancy hat instead. 

Detail of the images oh the chestplate of a suit of armor

Ceremonial Half-Armor with Repoussé Decoration (detail). Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

This detail features Venus and Mars, the Roman gods of love and war, united in the center of the breastplate, implying that the wearer of the armor is a man of all seasons, fit for war and courtly love. The armor was made around 1580 and was altered a few years later in order to keep up with men’s fashions. This half-suit also came from the Mackay collection. 

Photo of a suit of armor on view at a museum

Field Armor from a Garniture, perhaps for Siegmund Friedrich, Freiherr von Herberstein (died 1621), Southern Germany, probably Augsburg, c. 1580, blued steel with etching and gilded brass, modern leather and restorations, weight: 15.48 kg (4 lb 12 oz), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

This German field armor is shown from the side. It features decorative trim inspired by Islamic motifs. This suit also came from the Mackay collection. 

The Mexican painting of Santiago (St. James the Greater) in the background is from SAMA’s collection. In Spain, he was called Santiago Matamoros (Santiago, Slayer of Moors), because he is said to have made miraculous appearances to fight against the Moors during the Spanish reconquest of Spain. In Mexico, he was sometimes referred to as Santiago Mataindios (Santiago, Slayer of Indians), because he was thought to have assisted in the conquest of the indigenous peoples. 

Photo of a suit of armor installed at a museum

Three-Quarter Armor for a Cuirassier, Augsburg, southern Germany, 1620-25, steel, brass, modern leather, weight: 21.3 kg (47 lb, 1 oz), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

By 1600, the Cuirassier (named after his torso armor) was symptomatic of the triumph of firearms over plate armor. He replaced the heavily armored cavalryman bearing a lance. The Cuirassier was armed with two pistols and a sword. He wore long boots instead of armor on his lower legs and feet. 

Photo of the top portion of a suit of armor installed in a museum

Three-Quarter Armor for a Cuirassier (detail). Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

The helmet in the above example from Augsburg was influenced by the Turkish chichak. This influence is a consequence of the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into Southeastern Europe. 

Photo of a breast plate of a suit of armor

Keyhole Plate made from a Breastplate, Northern Italian, probably Milan, breastplate about 1555-60, etched and blackened steel, 14 3/16 × 13 3/16 inches, 2 lb, 14 oz (weight)
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

The triumph of firearms over plate armor resulted in the subjugation of the latter. Armor, heretofore the pride of knights, was forced into performing countless ignominious forms of utilitarian servitude. Even a helmet, previously the valued guardian of the knight’s head, could be reduced to a second life as a planter or a pot. The above work, which began as a beautifully etched and blackened breastplate, a centerpiece of what must have been a formidable steel suit, was literally flattened so that it could be pressed into service as a keyhole plate for a door lock. A great deal of armor was melted down, vanishing altogether. 

Photo of a detail of a piece of armor

Gorget for an Officer of the City Militia, Netherlandish, late 1700s, gilt brass, 6 11/16 × 6 7/8 inches, 7 oz (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

A gorget is a neckguard. It was worn over a padded coat, under torso armor. After 1600, when the superiority of firearms led to the abandonment of torso armor, some officers wore a gorget over a leather coat. Gorgets were transformed from relatively simple shielding devices (which were not seen) into elaborate adornments and emblems of authority. Gorgets diminished in size to serve their new function as emblems. The above gorget is more a beautiful and impressive gilded artwork than a functional piece of armor. Gorgets survived the demise of plate armor. The German military and Nazi Party officials continued to utilize small gorgets throughout World War II.

Non-European Armor

Helmet from a suit of armor

Kulah Khud, Northern Indian, 1600s, with later modifications, iron, brass, silver and gold, 5 11/16 × 7 11/16 inches, 2 lb, 12 oz (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

The Mughals brought Persian forms and motifs when they conquered northern India around 1500. The kulah khud is a prototypical Persian helmet type. The many variations of it feature a rounded skull, a top spike (missing in this example), and mail to guard the neck. The lotus-inspired pattern that is embossed on the helmet is an Indian motif, reflecting a synthesis of traditions. 

Helmet from a suit of armor

Helmet, probably Sudan, 1800s, russeted iron with gilding, 11 13/16 × 21 1/4 × 8 1/4 inches, 5 lb, 9 oz (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Photo: Ruben C. Cordova.

This helmet is an African variation of an Islamic helmet type. Its conical form reflects North African architecture, and its arrow-shaped nose guard is a Sudanic trait. Made for a leader of high status, it may have been utilized in the revolt against the British in the late 1800s.

Helmet from a suit of armor shaped like a conch shell

Nagasone Tojiro Mitsumasa, Helmet in the form of a Sea Conch Shell, 1618, iron with traces of lacquer, textiles, 9 × 12 × 10 1/2 inches, 3 lb., 13 oz (weight), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. Image © 2021 Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.

This fantastical helmet, the finest of its kind (it engendered several copies), would have been the envy of Bashford Dean. It was purchased at Parke Bernet Galleries in 1951, from the collection of Edward Hubbard Litchfield (which was also the source of the kulah khud).

Such helmets, known as kawari-kabuto “extraordinary helmets,” were worn by generals and warlords in the late sixteenth century. They helped to distinguish leaders in the tumult of smoke-filled battlefields. Generals utilized conch shells to call their troops, so it is a most appropriate motif.

Helmet from a suit of armor shaped like a conch shell

Nagasone Tojiro Mitsumasa, Helmet in the form of a Sea Conch Shell (detail). Image © 2021 Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.

The brim of the helmet has a pattern that imitates the skin of a manta ray. The many holes in the helmet attest to its long-term use. The holes were made when different costumes were affixed to the helmet.

Helmet from a suit of armor shaped like a conch shell

Nagasone Tojiro Mitsumasa, Helmet in the form of a Sea Conch Shell (underside). Image © 2021 Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.

As a final, invisible conceit, the underside of the Sea Conch Shell helmet mimics a nautilus shell spiral. 

The Age of Armor has been a popular exhibition, one Emily Ballew Neff, the Kelso Director at SAMA, says has been “received with great enthusiasm” by a diverse public, “including the military community, families, history enthusiasts, and art aficionados.” She adds: “The exhibition not only reveals the extraordinary design, engineering, and innovation behind these powerful objects but also offers visitors an opportunity to reflect on the enduring and complicated legacy of weapons in all cultures across the globe. We invite the public to come and experience this remarkable collection, which is one of the largest and most important of its kind in the United States before it leaves SAMA.”

Forgeng reflects on the pleasures of The Age or Armor’s national tour: “Sharing the collection and the stories around it is the thing I most love about my work — it was frustrating that so much of the collection was in storage after moving to WAM, but being able to share it with a national audience has made it entirely worthwhile.” I saw the lecture Forgeng recently gave at SAMA in connection with the exhibition, which was well-attended, with an informed and lively audience. Forgeng adds: “the best part is when I can interact with the visitors directly…. you could see during the Q&A [at SAMA] just how engaged and intrigued people are by these objects — so many questions, coming from so many different kinds of people and perspectives.” As this review goes to press, WAM announced that its armor gallery, the fruition of a decade of planning, will open in 2025, as reported by the Worcester Telegram and Gazette


Closing events associated with The Age of Armor at SAMA:

Special Exhibition Tours

Sundays | 12:00–1:00 p.m. and 1:30–2:30 p.m.

Tuesdays | 5:30–6:30 p.m.


Film on the Green: The Princess Bride | Friday, May 3 | 8:00–10:00 p.m.


Kids’ Studio: Ink & Honor | Wednesday, May 8 |10:00–11:15 a.m.


My thanks to Jeffrey L. Forgeng and Sheryl Reiss, who each provided me with an article.


Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian who has curated more than thirty exhibitions. His next curatorial project is Dining with Rolando Briseño: A Fifty Year Retrospective, which opens September 5 at Centro de Artes in San Antonio. He has reviewed Elegant Pursuits (and a Giant Taihu Rock), Victorian Radicals, and Men of Steel, Women of Wonder at SAMA. 


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Robert Gonzalez May 12, 2024 - 16:28

Great review on the Higgins Armor Exhibition at SAMA! Fascinating history and beautiful metal engraving.

Ruben C. Cordova May 18, 2024 - 01:18

Thanks, Roberto. Exhibitions like this one don’t come around very often. Many people never have the chance to observe the exquisite craftsmanship these armorers possessed. And Higgins himself was quite a character.


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