The Thun-Hohenstein Album: Cultures of Remembrance in a Paper Armory
By Chassica Kirchhoff
How has the Thun-Hohenstein album traditionally been understood by scholars?
Beginning with the album’s first discovery in the late nineteenth century, it was assumed to contain drawings attributable to the hands of famous Augsburg artists and armors, namely Hans Burgkmair the elder and Lorenz and Kolman Helmschmid. After the album and its companion codex disappeared in the wake of World War II, this mythos grew as scholars published the drawings as designs drafted by the hands of the armorers themselves.
What led you to re-examine it and how did your approach differ?
At first, I was entirely seduced by the beauty and craftsmanship of the armors. I was interested in the traditional narrative of the Thun Album drawings as the graphic oeuvre of innovative smiths like Lorenz and Kolman Helmschmid. Even then, I was most interested in considering how armorers like the Helmschmids fit into their artistic communities and the more traditional stories of Renaissance Art. But, at that time, the album had yet to be rediscovered, so—like many authors before me—I was trying to understand the images using only black-and-white photographs taken in the 1920s.
Pierre Terjanian’s rediscovery of both albums of armor from the former Thun-Hohenstein baronial library completely changed that. Pierre’s groundbreaking publications on the albums identify the types of equipment, specific surviving armors, and—in cases like Emperor Maximilian I—real people the drawings depict. He and I were among the first scholars to handle and examine the albums after their re-emergence from the storerooms of the Prague Museum of Decorative Arts. I was the first to bring perspectives informed by manuscript studies and print history to the bound collection. The album’s codicology—the binding structure, the organization of the drawings, and the ways they were compiled—combined with comparative consideration of related books and collections of real armor to shape my conceptualization of the work as an object of remembrance. It wasn’t a collection of preliminary designs but carefully crafted images that documented and retrospectively celebrated princely armors!
How do the armors depicted in the codex relate to real artefacts?
The Thun album represents a spectrum of connectedness between depicted armors and their steel counterparts. Some drawings are so specific that they are almost perfect portraits of complete armors or elements—like helmets, shields, or gauntlets—that survive today in royal armories and museums. Other drawings represent elements of armor that, while recognizable, differ from their real-life subjects in significant and sometimes confusing ways. These reveal how some draftsmen must have worked from visual models or descriptions rather than drawing the objects “from life.” Finally, some drawings depict armors that have not been identified as surviving objects. This last category of images sometimes feels the most tantalizing and poignant. They allude to stunning works that may now be lost to history or—perhaps—were never realized in steel and existed only in the artists’ imaginations.
What was the intent behind the images?
That is the six-million-dollar question! As with many historical works of art, it’s difficult for us to know what the artists intended when they made the drawings. Many images seem to have been based on earlier preliminary designs, pictorial inventories, and works celebrating Emperors Maximilian I, Charles V, and their courts. Each of these potential antecedents would have had vastly different functions and contexts of viewership. Rather than attempting to interpret a long-dead artist’s intentions, I consider the drawings alongside closely related precedents, companion works, and antecedents—as well as the armors they represent—to suggest what the images may have meant to viewers in the sixteenth century and to the collector who compiled them into the album during the early seventeenth century.
What lessons do you hope readers will take from your research?
One of my aims for this book is to invite nuanced engagement with the drawings that populate the earlier of the two Thun albums and other representations of armor. These images – and countless other works of art – have often been treated by both scholars and arms and enthusiasts as transparent documents of real armors: visual sources that can be called upon to faithfully reproduce historical objects and fully understand their construction. Though the album’s bound collection contains images that reproduce works from Emperor Charles V’s personal armory and may also incorporate copies of earlier preliminary drawings or workshop portfolios created by Augsburg armorers, the veracity of these representations is complicated by their transmission across space, time, and medium. However, meaning resides in the interstices between the armors and their depictions on the leaves of the album, as well as intermediary works that transmitted the armorer’s art of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century across time and media. Rather than treating images of armor or armored bodies as simply reflections of martial objects or practices, we must consider them as artworks in their own right. Through this lens, the drawings’ details offer clues to their makers’ choices and insights into historical perceptions of armors, their contexts of use, and their multivalent meanings.
Finally, to be a responsible historian of martial culture is not to blindly glorify the violence of the past, but to analyze it critically, examining how martial constructions of power echo within and shape our present. Visual culture’s role in the construction of power is a central theme of this book, which analyzes how imagery can shape collective memory, in turn reinforcing traditional power structures or transforming them to fit new contexts and perceptions. This study also necessarily engages with hierarchies of class and bellicose conceptions of masculinity. It is my sincere hope that, by unpacking the geneses of persistent structures of hierarchy, this work will also prompt readers to bring critical consideration to their own encounters with the visual culture that permeates our contemporary experiences and the historical ideas layered beneath present-day cultures of remembrance.
CHASSICA KIRCHOFF is an art historian who explores the history, meaning, and representation of martial material culture in medieval and early modern Europe. She is a curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, USA.