It would be impossible for me to write just one post about the Cleveland Museum of Art and successfully cover all of its exhibitions and collections. Sure, there are volumes of books dedicated to this city treasure which are capable of doing it justice. However, if I tried fitting the entirety of the internationally celebrated museum in one entry, it’d be too long for even me to read.
Similarly, it’s just as difficult to see all of the Art Museum in only one visit. While I’ve been there a few times since moving to Cleveland, I still haven’t explored everything. My most recent visit was in October when the monthly Cleveland Sketch Crawl met in the Museum’s Armor Court.
This section of the Museum has always been one of my favorite parts of the recently reopened 1916 gallery. When we came to the city in 2008, the Museum was about halfway through its massive ongoing renovation. The first time we visited the Museum was to see the temporary exhibit Arms and Armor from Imperial Austria. It was an excellent teaser for the re-unveiling of the Museum’s renowned Armor Court which happened later that year.
The Armor Court features European arms and armor from 1400 – 1700 and includes helmets, weaponry of the blade, arrow and gun variety, and even full body armor for man and horse. Many of the pieces were acquired in 1916, when the Museum’s first director Frederic Allen Whiting persuaded John Long Severance to buy and donate a collection of armor from a collector in Boston.
Since then it’s been a hit among visitors — especially children and those who typically have to be dragged to see art — for its glimpse into an exciting (and violent) part of history. In recent decades, curators discovered that some of the pieces original to the exhibit were fakes made of mismatched parts. These have since been replaced with authentic armor. The now fully genuine collection is housed in a beautiful, light-filled, enclosed courtyard. With the 2008 reopening, the Armor Court was returned to how it looked in 1998, when it last underwent a top-to-bottom renovation.
When I visited for the Cleveland Sketch Crawl, I spent some time walking around the gallery trying to figure out what I wanted to draw during my short stay. While I was there, I enjoyed tracing the evolution of armor from Medieval to Renaissance times.
In the Middle Ages, there were mail tunics, or hauberks, that provided lighter-weight, more-flexible protection than their iron predecessors. Made of thousands of metal rings linked together, mail armor was coupled with helmets and shields for additional security.
Because of the challenges presented by longbows, crossbows and eventually firearms, plate armor became the new necessity in the Renaissance. These full suits of armor were made of hundreds of steel plates joined together to fit their owner specifically. This allowed for full protection, but also continued to offer the flexibility needed to fight. Other aspects of the body armor made shields unnecessary by deflecting attacks with angled surfaces. These surfaces also became a blank canvas for detailed designs and etchings such as a family’s coat of arms or illustrations of a warrior’s skill and style.
A trip to the Armor Court allows you to view this evolution, as well as the weapons that inspired them. For Medieval armor, there are examples of mail shirts from the 1400s in Europe and helmets from places like Italy. Likewise, there are full-body and partial suits of plated armor from the Renaissance, such as the centerpiece of the Museum’s Armor Court: the Field Armor for Man and Horse. One of the most memorable sights of the room, it’s a life-size model of a man and horse both decked out in full gear. The suit is from North Italy with gilding, leather and velvet etched with the Arms of the Vols-Colonna Family. It’s a magnificent site that can stop first-time visitors in their tracks.
Hung on the walls of the Court is my other favorite highlight of the room – the Dido and Aeneas tapestries. These 8 tapestries tell the tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas in The Aeneid, Virgil’s ancient Roman epic poem and the subject of my Latin studies in my junior year of high school. In addition to having a soft spot in my heart for the story (I loved translating Latin), it’s also portrayed on a beautiful, dynamic and very large scale.
The tapestries were designed and woven in the 1600s by the Roman painter Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and Michel Wauters’ tapestry workshop, respectively. They were donated in 1915 and are a permanent installation to the Museum. However, their constant exposure to light has caused the original colors to irreversibly fade, something that has prompted the Museum’s rotation of textiles to improve preservation.
The Sketch Crawl group spent over two hours in just this one room. Fortunately, because admission to the Cleveland Museum of Arts‘ collections is free, you can take as many trips as you’d like to explore it — something I’m a long way from finishing on my list of Cleveland places I’d like to fully ‘clue into.’ Recognized as one of a few institutions still allowing no-cost access to 40,000+ objects spanning 6,000 years of achievement in the arts, the Museum fulfills its mission of being not just one of the world’s most distinguished comprehensive art museums but also one of Northeast Ohio’s principal civic and cultural institutions.
For a student of the arts, the Museum is also an excellent muse as you can freely explore the architecture and non-special-collection works up close and personal. As the building project continues through 2013, there will be even more sources of inspiration. However, if you plan on sketching at the Cleveland Art Museum, there are a few guidelines to protect the works there. The museum only allows pencil for sketching. You are not permitted to bring in pens, ink of any kind, paints, pastels or charcoal for obvious reasons. Read the full gallery policies before you go.
Numerous other options for sketching abound in Cleveland, as I continue to experience via the Cleveland Sketch Crawl. The next Crawl is this coming Saturday, Jan. 8th, 10am – noon. We’ll be venturing to the Cleveland Mounted Police station on the near eastside of Downtown. Check out the Cleveland Sketch Crawl blog for more information, including a link to where the station is located (since Google Maps will give you the wrong location if you try looking for it).
Cleveland Museum of Art 411: