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Armed to the Hilt

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Imperial Spain's Dazzling Show of Force, with Flashes of Fighting

Perhaps the most striking thing — aside, of course, from the intricate details and enviable craftsmanship — is how well preserved the armor is. There’s a good reason for that: Many of the pieces on display at the National Gallery of Art in “The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain” never actually saw fighting, just fanfare.

The exhibit marries for the first time suits of armor from the renowned Spanish Royal Armory in Madrid with portraits, tapestries and works on paper that show how the armor was used and worn by monarchs between the 15th and 18th centuries to cultivate power rather than win battles.

“Ornate armor is … more propagandistic than utilitarian, serving to impress viewers with its opulence and imagery extolling the wearers’ power, valor and chivalry,” according to wall art.

The oldest piece of armor in the 75-item collection dates to the reign of Emperor Maximilian I (1508-1519). Most of the armor on display comes from the collections of emperors Charles V and his son, Philip II, who founded the Royal Armory at a time when the Spanish crown was at the height of its international power. Today, it houses the oldest and one of the finest and largest collections of armor in the world.

“All of them are masterpieces,” said Alvaro Soler del Campo, exhibition curator and director of the Spanish Royal Armory, Patrimonio Nacional. “Of course there are different levels among these high-quality objects, but all of them are important for many reasons, so it’s very difficult to say, ‘This is much better than this.’”

The decision to include paintings and tapestries in the show was very deliberate, Campo noted. “Paintings give us a lot more information than we think,” he said, and, in this case, provide greater context for the metalwork they accompany. For instance, many of the portraits depict the monarchs wearing similar armor to what is presented in the show.

The exhibit begins with a shimmer and continues to shine from there. In the first gallery, the glimmering parade helmet of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V from 1533 doubles as a sort of portrait. The embossed and gilt steel piece includes a metal reproduction of Charles V’s curly, golden-red hair and beard.

One of the most interesting helmets on display was made by Lorenz Helmschmid circa 1490-1500 and is shaped like a bull’s head, with gold-tipped wings replacing horns. Another outstanding one is simply called “Helmet (Cabasset) of Philip IV,” made around 1625. Its etched, embossed, gilt steel glows with a vine-like design and wide brim that meets in four sharp directional points.

Full suits of armor are also on display. Charles V was covered from head to toe in steel and leather around 1525 with heavy pieces that include a flaring skirt, or tonlet, featuring golden animals running along the edge.

Humans were not the only ones dressed to the hilt. The “Equestrian Armor of Maximilian I” depicts scenes from the heroic stories of Hercules and Samson. Around 1585, the Duke of Savoy presented King Philip III with a head guard for his horse featuring a beautifully twisted unicorn-like horn jutting from the top.

Although most of the armor was used for pageantry, some did see battle. Charles V wore the “Mühlberg Armor” at the Battle of Mühlberg in April 1547 — a battle he won against the Germans, reaffirming his power. Philip II wore the “Burgundy Cross” armor when he won his first battle as king, the Battle of Saint-Quentin against the French in August 1557. Three years later, artist Anthonis Mor painted the king in “Philip II in Armor” wearing part of the suit as an homage to that triumph.

In addition to the vibrantly colored and carefully detailed royal portraits — you can almost feel the luxuriant fabric in the folds of the cape depicted in “Philip the Handsome,” a turn-of-the-16th-century oil on oak panel — the exhibit includes a woodcut from 1515 commissioned by Maximilian that dominates a wall of the second gallery. The “Triumphal Arch of Maximilian” represents Habsburg genealogy and shows scenes that buttress the emperor’s status, including successful battles and dynastic marriages.

Massive floor-to-ceiling tapestries also serve as windows into history. The fourth room of the show is flanked by two such works, one of which — a gold, silver, silk and wool tapestry circa 1520 — celebrates Charles’s election as emperor in 1519.

Curator Campo hopes that visitors come away understanding that works of art can fall outside the realm of painting, sculpture and other common media.

“Many times they don’t realize that there were many other works of art, not only armor, but, you know, furniture — a lot of things — that were as important,” he said. “At the same time, I think it is also important that people can realize another way to see the paintings because we are not always working with paintings from the artistic point of view. We have to also consider the paintings in many cases as a document where you can learn a lot of things.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014