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The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries at the Meadows Museum

Landing at Asilah probably produced under the direction of Passchier Grenier, 1475-1500 (photo by Paul M.R. Maeyaert)

Landing at Asilah probably produced under the direction of Passchier Grenier, 1475-1500 (photo by Paul M.R. Maeyaert)

The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries
Meadows Museum
February 5 through May 13, 2012

We all know that great art must be experienced firsthand to be truly appreciated, but never has this been more true than in the case of the current exhibit at the Meadows Museum, The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries. Please go and see these tapestries yourself, as no mere words I can conjure here will do justice to their awe inspiring beauty, size and magnificence. The fact that they are over 500 years old and have been restored meticulously to their original glory adds to their impact and assures their place as true masterpieces.

I was lucky enough to attend a preview for this outstanding exhibition at the Meadows Museum on Thursday February 2 in advance of the exhibit opening on February 5.  Following addresses by Dr. Mark Roglán – Director, Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University (SMU); Miguel Ángel Aguilar – Chairman, Fundación Carlos de Amberes and Mary L. Levkoff – Curator of Sculpture & Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; I was expecting to be blown away when I caught sight of the tapestries. Despite having such high expectations, my first reaction was sheer amazement and almost shock at the scale and beauty of these incredible feats of design and craftsmanship.  From their initial impact – the combination of size and incredible intricacy of composition – it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of closely observed detail that fills every inch of these enormous (13 feet high by up to 36 feet long) tapestries.

On show at the Meadows through May 13, 2012, the Pastrana Tapestries truly must be experienced.

Mary Levkoff, curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (where the tapestries recently showed for the first time outside Europe) stated that it was  “impossible to gather enough information to convey how extraordinary these works are “. She implored me to convey to Dallas Art News readers just how these pieces must be seen to be believed.

Produced for Portugese King Afonso V in the latter part of the 1400’s, the tapestries have been preserved since the 17th century at the Collegiate Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Pastrana in the Spanish province of Guadalajara (situated between Madrid and Toledo). It is believed they were gifted to King Phillip II of Spain when Spain and Portugal unified in the 1580s.

Recently, the Fundación Carlos de Amberes organised and sponsored the Royal Manufacturers De Wit in Belgium to restore the tapestries to their original beauty. In 2011, the conservation efforts were awarded the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage. Since January 2010, the tapestries have toured European cities and the Meadows is only the second US venue (after the National Gallery) to have been chosen to show these 15th Century masterpieces. Understandably, the transport and exhibition of such rare treasures requires complex logistical and diplomatic relations between galleries, charitable foundations, the church diocese and numerous embassies.

Whilst the tapestries have been displayed at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and will go on to tour other U.S. cities, in a coup for the Meadows Museum, a contemporary suit of armour worn by King Afonso’s Standard bearer Duarte de Almeida (depicted in the tapestries),   is only on display in Dallas. This is believed to be the only example of contemporaneous Portuguese armour still in existence. In addition, the Meadows is showing 15th and 16th century maps loaned by SMU’s DeGoyler Library. These supporting materials add to the depth of experience available at the Meadows.

The four tapestries which narrate the siege and conquest of Asilah and Tangiers in 1471 by the then Portuguese King, Afonso V (1431-81), are masterpieces of design, craftsmanship and technical execution.  Whilst the designer of the original cartoons for these enormous works remains a mystery, it is fairly well established that they were woven at the Tournai workshop in Belgium during the last quarter of the fifteenth century under the direction of  the famed tapestry merchant Passchier Grenier.

It is believed they were commissioned by Afonso V to commemorate and glorify his great victory against the “infidels” in what is now North Africa, not long after the actual events took place. These tapestries are among the rarest and earliest to depict contemporary events.

In addition to their scale and quality, what makes these masterpieces so unique, is their depiction of contemporary warfare. At the time, most tapestries and other works of art depicted accepted biblical or mythological themes. Miguel Angel Aguilar, of the Fondacion Carlos de Ambreres refers to the Pastrana Tapestries as the “war photography of their time”, (one of the) “first testimonies of warfare”. Indeed, in addition to their undisputed artistic merit and supreme craftsmanship, these awe inspiring pieces serve as valuable historical records, providing unique insights into contemporary Portugese warfare, weaponry, cultural and mores, armoury and heraldry. There are no other known contemporaneous records such as these.

Fall of Tangier (detail) probably produced under the direction of Passchier Grenier, 1475-1500 (photo by Paul M.R. Maeyaert)

Fall of Tangier (detail) probably produced under the direction of Passchier Grenier, 1475-1500 (photo by Paul M.R. Maeyaert)

Tapestries performed a number of key functions for those who commissioned them. Ostensibly, they provided insulation and decoration for the huge, often cold walls of castles and fortifications which were home to the kings and noblemen. Tapestries were also inherently practical – they could simply be rolled up and transported during times of conflict. Perhaps more importantly however, they were an obvious display their owners wealth and power. At the time, tapestries were the most expensive form of art that could be commissioned, thus their mere presence testified to immense wealth. In addition, their sequential nature enabled them to depict narratives that would support and enhance the glory of their owner – hence the title of this exhibition – The Invention of Glory. They were the ultimate tool of self-aggrandisement and propaganda available to the wealthy and powerful.

Read sequentially, the Pastrana Tapestries recount the Landing at Asilah (up to 300 ships and thousands of soldiers), The Siege of Asilah, The Assault on Asilah (where the King is clearly seen in the battle) and the Fall of Tangier (The final expulsion of the Tangerines from their land).

To contemplate how these tapestries were designed is awe inspiring. The pictorial and design devices are unique and beautiful. To convey the presence of 100s of ships at the landing, the artist arranged the first tapestry with a border of crows nests representing all of the invading ships – a beautiful visual device, but also powerful imagery: the fortified city is literally surrounded by the encroaching ships.

King Afonso V is recognizable in the first three tapestries by the presence of his royal standard, the paddle wheel with water droplets (thought to be a reference to maritime activities as well as perhaps a fertility symbol). The detailed illustration of Portugese armour and weaponry is of particular interest to historians, and the early muskets, regal pikes, crossbows and canon are all intricately depicted.

Closer inspection of the second and third tapestries reveals the gradual degradation of the fortifications of Asilah, and the design descends into frenetic chaos by the end of the third piece. A calm and restrained air in the final work, the Fall of Tangier, is imparted by more lyrical design elements such as the regular waves of the sea, the sparser central section of the tapestry and the ordered composition.

Naturally, given their subject matter, the Pastrana Tapestries do depict violence and some bloodshed; however this is not the image I was left with. The overall impression is rather more restrained, decorative and lyrical than one might expect. Every soldier (and there are thousands) has recognizable, differentiated features and personality. In particular, the fourth Tapestry (the conquest of Tangier) is noteworthy for its portrayal of the defeated enemy. Rather than depicting the enemy as less than human, evil and deformed (as became an  accepted artistic device shortly after these tapestries were made),  the defeated Tangerines are carefully rendered to look as human and sympathetic as any of the victorious soldiers. This restrained, quiet depiction of defeat is one of the tapestries’ most noted and exalted features. A cynic might say that this is a further example of the propaganda inherent in these works, portraying the victors as relatively beneficent towards their fallen enemy.

In addition to being a masterful feat of complex design and narrative, the Pastrana Tapestries are also a triumph of craftsmanship. The weavers would have worked only during daylight hours to assure correct colour hues and had to weave the design horizontally. It is estimated it took nearly a decade and many artisans to produce these great works.

I must declare that I am a big fan of the Meadows Museum, it is a beautiful space, and its collection is curated and displayed with great sensitivity. I liken the Meadows to a boutique – the offering is smaller but wonderfully well selected, and of superior quality. The scale of the Meadows means that as a visitor you never feel overwhelmed or that you must push yourself to cover everything on offer. It is absorbable in a relatively short time and never leaves me feeling dissatisfied or exhausted.

Even if, like me, your initial reaction might be “old tapestries aren’t really my thing”, I implore you to take the time to visit the Meadows to see these extraordinary masterpieces. Chances are you will leave as amazed and inspired as I did – in awe of the great and combined genius that produced them. They are, quite simply, breathtaking.

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Fundación Carlos de Amberes, Madrid, in association with the Embassy of Spain, the Spain-USA Foundation, and the Embassy of Portugal and with the cooperation of the Embassy of Belgium and the Embassy of Morocco in Washington, D.C. Generous financial support from The Meadows Foundation has helped to make the Dallas venue possible.

The conservation of the tapestries received the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards 2011 http://www.europanostra.org/projects/65/.

About Melanie O'Halloran

Melanie is an amateur art enthusiast who recently moved to Dallas from Melbourne, Australia with her family. Melanie has been enjoying sampling the vibrant Dallas Arts scene. Prior to moving to Dallas, Melanie had been studying towards a Masters of Art Curatorship at Melbourne University, and hopes to pursue some study in that area whilst in Dallas. Melanie’s taste in art is eclectic to say the least ranging from medieval religious iconography, to the twentieth century modern era and contemporary works in particular street art and installations. Another specific area of interest is Australian Aboriginal art and its potential to empower indigenous communities. Melanie can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/melanie.ohalloran

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