At its greatest point of development, from the late fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth century, complete horse armor consisted of a series of custom-made steel plates, shaped to afford the horse maximum protection while still allowing for freedom of movement. The principal parts of a full horse armor are: the chanfron to protect the horse's head; the crinet, which extends from the top of the chanfron down the crest and neck to the withers; the peytral, which covers the horse's breast and shoulders; the flanchards, which guard the rib and abdomen areas below the sides of the saddle; and the crupper, which protects the rump, thighs, and hindquarters. The exhibition includes important examples of each part, so that both the development of the various forms and styles of decoration can be compared firsthand.
The horse was an integral part of medieval and Renaissance culture, not only as a beast of burden but also as a sign of rank and status. For the nobility, horsemanship was an essential skill, both socially and militarily. Horses played a pivotal role in warfare for several centuries and often wore armor as elaborate and expensive as that of their riders.
Artistic representations, archaeological finds, and literary evidence show that heavily armored horses were already having a significant impact on the tactics and makeup of armies by the end of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) in China. By the seventh century, armored horses had become the dominant element of the armies of the great empires of the world—from China through Central Asia, the emerging Islamic states of the Middle East, and early medieval Europe. This trend continued in some areas for nearly another one thousand years. Horse armor was probably first introduced into Western Europe by the Romans during the late Roman Imperial period in the fourth century.
It was not until the thirteenth century, however, that armor for horses began to appear regularly in Western Europe. Although no horse armor from that early period has survived, its initial stages of development can be traced through representations in illuminated manuscripts and other works of art. One of the earliest three-dimensional representations of a fully armored European horse is, perhaps, a carved ivory chess piece—a knight, dated to about 1370—which is on display in the exhibition. By the fifteenth century (possibly even by the fourteenth century), horses were protected by rigid pieces of armor, both of leather and steel. Surviving examples of leather horse armor are extremely rare.
The works on view include three pieces of leather horse armor, the only examples of this kind in the United States and among the handful surviving worldwide; an extensive group of chanfrons, demonstrating the range of styles and decoration that evolved from the beginning of the late Gothic period to the sixteenth century; and an armored saddle, as well as several examples of the highly decorated steel plates, called saddle steels, which made the saddle into part of the horse's armor while also incorporating it into the overall decorative scheme of the equipment of horse and rider.
The group of four extremely rare and complete sixteenth-century armors for man and horse, which form the centerpiece of the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Arms and Armor Court, at the very heart of the department's permanent galleries, demonstrates the beauty and complexity of this material, which is explored in detail in the exhibition.