The Pontifical Swiss Guard marked its 500th anniversary last year. To honor this smallest and oldest army in the world on its major milestone, the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., has mounted a fetching exhibit.

The show, which started last fall and is scheduled to run until next February, is a true eye-opener. There are mannequins decked out in various authentic uniforms, antique armor and weapons from the Swiss Guard armory, paintings, flags and a wonderful selection from the largest single collection of antique prints connected to the Swiss Guard. (For museum details and directions, go to kofc.org or call 203-865-0400.)

At the entrance to the exhibit, two halberdier mannequins stand at attention, reminding us how the real Swiss Guard safeguards the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Apostolic Palace and the Holy Father.

We connect these bright Renaissance uniforms with their yellow-and-blue bands over red doublets most closely with these Vatican sentinels, but the exhibit’s dazzling display of other official Swiss Guard uniforms offers some real surprises.

There’s vivid official dress regalia for galas, plus smartly tailored blue drill uniforms topped with a beret. Three are the personal uniforms of two Swiss Guards instrumental in setting up the show. A drill uniform and an officer’s crimson full-dress attire with scarlet plume was worn on duty and for ceremonies by Capt. Roman Fringeli, who retired in 1999 after 26 years serving three popes.

Capt. Fringeli aspired to follow in the footsteps of his brothers Eugen and Alex, Swiss Guards before him. “I was 13 when I decided to become a Swiss Guard and serve the pope and the Church and what we believe,” he told the Register.

One of his responsibilities was to organize the duties of the entire Swiss Guard. Some of his fondest moments came helping guard John Paul II on 15 trips to 30 countries.

Capt. Fringeli remembers well what he said to the beloved Pope at an audience on his retirement: “Holy Father, I was always ready to sacrifice my life for your protection.”

The captain’s words carried the truth of what he and the Swiss Guards believe and commit to. This exhibit makes clear why every May 6 the Guards take a public oath to that effect.

It was on May 6, 1527, that 147 out of 189 Swiss Guards, including their commander, were killed defending the life of Pope Clement VII and the papacy during the infamous sack of Rome by Protestant mercenaries. Leading them was Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, who was killed before his army breached the walls. His helmet is on display as a symbol of the act.

In the battle, the heroic Swiss Guards died in St. Peter’s by the altar defending the Pope as the remaining 42 hastened Clement VII to safety at Castel Sant’Angelo.

Holy Heritage

It was a happier day 21 years earlier on Jan. 22, 1506, when Swiss soldiers first marched into the Vatican and were blessed by Julius II, whose family colors of yellow and blue became the base of the guards’ new uniforms. The red as seen today was added under Leo X at the beginning of his papacy in 1513, possibly because these were his Medici family colors.

Leo looks solemn in this exhibit’s huge early 15th-century portrait that pictures him with his Medici nephew who would become Clement VII. Renaissance artist Bugiardini copied this 1518 portrait from the one by his famous contemporary Raphael.

In 1914, Raphael’s frescoes proved a major inspiration to the Guard Commander Jules Respond, who was re-designing today’s uniforms to re-awaken the Renaissance grandeur. Then and now, Raphael was the real influence for this most familiar tricolor uniform, not Michelangelo as often thought.

They’re worn by the halberdiers, who still carry the traditional halberd, a pike-like 15th-century weapon. Halberds are on display along with swords from the 16th century to the 19th.

These antique weapons from the armory are still used today. So is the body armor that dates to the 1600s. Armor is displayed both as part of the uniform and also standing alone.

The armor, from plain to fancy with embossing, is in excellent condition considering its centuries of use. One striking example stands out with its gold-plate decorations.

While we’re used to seeing today’s ancient metal helmet, called a morion, with upturned brim and topped with red or white ostrich feather plumes, a helmet display teaches how hat style changed for a time before the 1914 reform.

Another highlight is the panoramic 1704 print showing an obelisk being moved to St. Peter’s square. One of Capt. Fringelli’s favorites, it includes many Swiss Guards on duty and the former Swiss Guard barracks still in the square before they were moved to make way for Bernini’s columns.

Several prints, like a brightly colored 19th-century one, also recall the Corpus Christi processions where the pope, carried high on a chair and under a baldachin, held the monstrance in blessing.

More portraits of the 33 commanders of the Swiss Guard, including the third, Kaspar Roist, killed in the Sack of Rome, fill another exhibit space. According to Marco Lupellaro, the exhibit’s co-curator, 11 of the commanders from 1600 to 1982 came from the same Lucerne family.

Quite clear in the exhibit are the facts that all 110 of today’s Swiss Guards, and every one before them, fulfill the requirements that include being Catholic, of good reputation, and being Swiss-born.

Capt. Fringeli emphasizes something else.

“Faith and idealism,” he says, “is the most important to be a Swiss Guard.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.