War is hell, but it seems beautiful in the textiles hanging on the walls of Washington's National Gallery of Art in the exhibit "The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries." Celebrating that Portuguese Catholic king's victory over a Muslim army in North Africa in 1471, they're a gloriously woven testament to his military might.
"The tapestries are a political statement about the power of the king, but they're also an expression of the Portuguese people," said Nino Brito, Portuguese ambassador to the United States, at the media unveiling of this temporary exhibit.
That expression is so detailed in these densely populated martial scenes that viewers learn a lot about the weapons deployed and the armor worn in that distant era; they are also able to see figurative groupings and facial expressions that give a suggestion of the individuality lurking beneath all that armor.
"Tapestries usually depict religious subjects, but these represent daily life," remarked the Spanish ambassador to the U.S., Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo. Admittedly, the daily life in this case involves soldiers attacking other soldiers.
In that respect, "the tapestries are the beginning of 'war photography,' " according to Miguel Angel Aguilar, president of the Fundacion Carlos de Amberes, which recently restored the moth-eaten tapestries and made them shimmer like new again.
These tapestries certainly rank with the visual highlights that the many visitors to the National Gallery of Art have been able to admire during this holiday season. They're as likely to be enjoyed by military historians as much as by art buffs, because they provide a glimpse into a late-15th-century world in which the relatively small country of Portugal was just starting to build its overseas empire. The country needed military muscle to protect its expansion of trade routes.
There was also a measure of crusading religious zeal as this Catholic country sought to make incursions into Muslim-dominated North Africa. Indeed, the Latin inscription atop one of the tapestries states that this is a war "to combat the Moors for the faith of Christ."
The four enormous wool and silk tapestries were commissioned by Portuguese King Afonso V to celebrate his North African campaign. The conquered cities of Asilah and Tangier, located near the Strait of Gibraltar in modern-day Morocco, were prizes that he basically wanted to boast about. Unlike so many other tapestries that suffered the ravages of time and eventually disappeared, these wall hangings have been owned by a church in Pastrana, Spain since the 17th century. That means many generations of church-goers, tourists and now museum-goers can spot the elaborately outfitted Alonso still leading his men into battle.
In looking at these tapestries today, it's inevitable that the tightly packed soldiers, ships and buildings amount to sensory overload. The best advice is to have that "wow" response from the middle of the room and then to pull up close to let your eyes roam across the detail. Look at the Portuguese soldiers rolling cannons onto the field in order to bombard the imposing walls of these Muslim-controlled cities. And then look at individual soldiers, whose protective armor includes mail shirts made up of thousands of interlocking metal rings.
In terms of military history, this was a transitional period that saw medieval weapons giving way to what were considered modern weapons in Renaissance-era Europe. On both sides of this conflict, you'll see some soldiers firing crossbows and others firing guns.
The ensuing bloodshed is reflected by occasional images of a fallen body, as well as by the inscription: "Prolonged everywhere until noon was an atrocious battle of the kind customary between wrathful victors and the despairing vanquished."
Considering how much fighting is going on at close quarters, however, the imagery is generally restrained and even dignified in depicting the confrontation. There is more red shown on royal emblem-sporting banners held atop lofty poles than on the bodies of the soldiers holding those banners.
It's also worth noting that the Portuguese soldiers are more realistically depicted than their Muslim foes. Bear in mind that the tapestries were woven in Belgium, which surely accounts for these heavily fortified North African cities being made to architecturally resemble northern European cities of that period.
"The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries" remains through Jan. 8 at the National Gallery of Art, at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington. Call 202-737-4215 or go to http://www.nga.gov.Copyright © 2015, CT Now