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The Lasting Legacy of the Metal Suit

MEDIEVAL armor still has - at least since the 19th century ``Gothic Revival'' - a rather vivid hold on the imagination. Perhaps we shouldn't blame ourselves too severely for not being sure if we find it irresistibly funny or mysteriously sinister or astonishingly beautiful - or all three. It seems strange enough not merely to belong to a remote era but to a different universe. Childhood reading is likely to have stamped armor on our minds in various ways. In Sir Walter Scott's ``Ivanhoe'' it is the impenetrable disguise for the ``Disinherited Knight'' - the very stuff of medieval romance. For Mark Twain's ``knight,'' on the other hand, armor is an incomprehensible encumbrance, particularly when shared with a persistent fly. T.H. White's laboriously battling knights in ``The Sword in the Stone'' are broadly comic (and historically inaccurate regarding the weight of the armor and consequent size and slowness of their horses). They are only slightly more serious descendants of Lewis Carroll's Tweedledum and Tweedledee (``He called it a helmet, though it certainly looked much more like a saucepan'').

One serious consequence of the Gothic Revival, however, was that armor has since been faithfully collected, preserved, and studied instead of being melted down. The marvelous skill of the armorers, balancing strong form, articulation, and rich decorativeness, not only deserves admiration, it has also been studied by space scientists wondering how best to form total body protection while allowing maximum movement for astronauts.

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And armor has appealed to the surreal imaginings of some modern sculptors. Henry Moore explored the mystique of inner and outer form in his ``Helmet Heads.'' Jacques Lipchitz had earlier investigated something similar. The Spanish sculptor Julio Gonzalez, recognizing that steel had historically been a material of aggression and war, saw it as an artistic means for peaceful ends, making repouss'e figures and heads of subtle ingenuity and expressiveness.