Visitors to “The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain— at the National Gallery of Art will get more than a glimpse at masterpiece portraits and visions of the royal Spanish court. They will be among the first people since the 16th and 17th centuries to see the artwork side by side with the armor depicted in it.
According to curator Alvaro Soler del Campo, director of the Royal Armory in Madrid and the chief curator at Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional, members of the royal family would wear their elaborate and symbolic armor while sitting for master painters, such as Anthony van Dyck and Diego Velázquez. Many of those paintings, however, were distributed throughout Europe to various royal courts and families.
Now, for the first time in centuries, those portraits are on display with an array of historical shields, helmets and suits from Spain’s Royal Armory.
The pieces provide a fascinating glimpse at the world of the Spanish court and the lives and values of the country’s notorious monarchs.
Not surprisingly, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V figures heavily into the display, from a portrait of him as a 7-year-old boy to the very helmets that he wore. It is interesting to note that the influence of his grandfather, Emperor Maximilian I of Austria, can be seen even in early paintings, in the style of his armor and the collar of the Golden Fleece around his neck.
Charles’ dedication to the Catholic Church is also evident. For example, one of his burgonets, or helmets, features a defeated Muslim Turk flanked by Fame and Victory, to represent triumph over Islam. The Virgin Mary is also portrayed in several pieces, and Biblical references appear throughout the exhibit.
Although Catholic imagery is prominent in the portraiture and armor, there is also significant representation of Greek mythological figures. The horn of Amalthea, wet nurse to Zeus, figures into many of the scenes on the armor. The burgonet and shield of Charles’ son, Philip II, is adorned with images of the Trojan War, including the warrior Paris’ choice of Aphrodite as the most beautiful of the goddesses.
The multifaceted exhibit is layered with history, symbolism, power and beauty, and provides great insight to the world of the Spanish court. Most of the pieces are originals, including three elaborate tapestries that are noteworthy for their beauty and historical significance.
The first in the collection, “The Review of the Troops at Barcelona,— was used to decorate the church in which Philip II married Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII of England. This was an important union to both countries — for Spain because it meant greater influence in England, particularly if the couple had children, and for England because it meant Mary could keep her country Catholic and out of the influence of Elizabeth, her Protestant half-sister.
Indicating the significance of the marriage, Charles V commissioned splendid armor for Philip and his horse to wear in the wedding procession, which are also on display.
The other tapestries depict the great philosophers and writers of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the meeting of Scipio and Hannibal. Each is richly colored and detailed, and meant to reflect boldness, fortune and high standards of morality.
Considering the collection as a whole, Soler del Campo said that given the richness and importance of each diverse piece, he could not single out one that would be most appealing or interesting to an audience.
“Most of them are masterpieces, so it is very hard to distinguish one from the other,— he said.
“The Art of Power— is being shown as part of the three-month “Preview Spain— program, organized by the Spanish embassy.
“We saw this as a unique opportunity to bring to the U.S. the value of armor and portraiture in a European court,— said Jorge Sobredo, cultural counselor at the embassy.
Noting that much of the armor worn by the Spanish monarchs was commissioned for “propagandistic— purposes, he said people in power still use art in this way to demonstrate their worldliness and knowledge.
“That’s a modern message as well,— he said. “Arts and culture give prestige. People in power like to project that through art.—
“The Art of Power— will be open through Nov. 1.