Friday, November 25, 2011

The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through January 8, 2012

These are tapestries commemorating Alfonso the V's campaign in Morocco.  What is interesting about them, is that they portray contemporary events, rather than the usual mythology or biblical history.  They are among the finest Gothic tapestries in existence; they date from the late 1400s.

Alfonso used them to invent a glorious image for himself, without worrying too much about pesky details that might get in the way.  In the Landing at Asilah, the weavers were unfamiliar with Moroccan architecture, so it appears that Afonso's army is landing in a Northern European city.  You can see that some of the soldiers are drowning, as the king and his son come to the city, but the focus is on the royalty, not on the common man.

In the Siege of Asilah, Afonso's army used wooden screens to shield themselves from Moroccan horsemen, a clever strategy.  In the Assault on Asilah, the troops are storming the city in hand-to-hand combat.  The conditions were actually much worse than the tapestries depict; there was a lot of rain, and many Portuguese ships were lost.  In the pictures, however, there is only glory.

In the Conquest of Tangier, the army walks into an empty city, as the inhabitants surrendered and fled, rather than suffer the fate of Asilah.  Clearly, one's existence was pretty miserable if one was a peasant.

The tapestries had been in Spain, and had been much damaged.  Recently, they were returned to Belgium, where they were originally woven, for restoration, and are now in such good condition that they can travel.

Verdcit: Make time for this show - when else are you likely to see the finest Gothic tapestries in existence?  There aren't very many pieces, so you can spend plenty of time looking at each one.

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