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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

15th century tapestries portray military history at the National Gallery of Art

The entrance to the Pastrana Tapestries exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, framed by Alexander Calder's Model for East Building Mobile (1972)/Patricia Leslie

               The Pastrana Tapestries exhibition opening/Patricia Leslie

King Afonso V and his son, Prince Joao, prepare for battle

                A mother escapes a battleworn city with her three children

 Moth damage before restoration of the tapestries by the Royal Manufacturers De Wit of Mechlin, Belgium
               After restoration by the Royal Manufacturers De Wit of Mechlin, Belgium
                               A 15th century weapon of mass destruction

                    A timeline of 15th century Portuguese history/Patricia Leslie

Whether or not you are a fan of military history, a visual feast awaits you and your family in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art where a stunning display of four 15th century Gothic tapestries never seen together in the United States hang floor-to-ceiling in two galleries.
When the show first went up, no less than the ambassadors from Belgium, Portugal, and Spain came for the briefing to praise the artistry, each other, and the National Gallery of Art in the joint effort to produce The Invention of Glory:  Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries. (If they had taken a side trip up to Capitol Hill, they might have imparted their wisdom about cooperation and a common goal to members of the U.S. Congress. Alas.)
The tapestries of wool and silk threads tell the story of the 1471 advent of Portuguese King Afonso V (1432-1481) to the African coast with his son, Prince Joao, age 16, to successfully wage battle against Muslims in Asilah and Tangier at a time when Portugal and Spain vied to control the region.
If your sons are anything like mine, they will be awestruck by the action, the weapons, the armor and the art, and the huge numbers of soldiers designed and sewn by Flemish artisans who knew little about Africa but gave the Moroccan cities a dash of Belgian flavor with European urban scenes and some monkeys thrown in for good measure.
Standing in the galleries and with just a tiny imagination, a visitor can hear the sounds of battle, the horns and shouts, the clashing of swords and spears, the stomping of horses' hooves and soldiers' boots.
Where is King Afonso? See if you can find him and his son in ceremonial battle garb more than once. Can you find the mother with her three children? Well-written labels will guide you, should you need any help.
In the second gallery is an excellent timeline which spans almost an entire wall and lays out important dates of Portuguese history.  Also, photographs of "before" and "after" the restoration of the tapestries funded by Spain's Fundacion Carlos de Amberes produce more admiration for the talented artisans of 500 years ago and for those of today, as well.
The tapestries measure about 12' x 36' and weigh approximately 135 pounds each.  They are among the rarest and earliest examples of illustrated history for the vast majority of those period tapestries portrayed allegorical or religious subjects.
They are named the Pastrana Tapestries for Pastrana, Spain, 50 miles from Madrid where the works have been located in a church since the 17th century. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), they received special protection.
From the National Gallery, the exhibition will travel to Dallas, San Diego, and Indianapolis.  A handsome color catalogue with cloth covering is available for purchase.
On December 6 and December 8 at 12 p.m. the National Gallery's Julia Burke and Diane Arkin will speak about the tapestries, and the public is invited.  (For location, ask at the East Building information desk.) 
On December 18 at 4 p.m. and December 21 at 12:30 p.m. the 2010 film of 270 minutes (with intermission) by Raul Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon, which is based on the 1854 novel by Portuguese novelist Camilo Castelo Branco, will be screened in the East Building Auditorium.
What: The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries
When: Now through January 8, 2012, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sunday excepting Christmas Day and New Year's Day when the National Gallery of Art is closed
Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building, between Third and Fourth streets on Constitution Avenue, NW
How much: No charge. Admission to the National Gallery of Art is always free.
Metro stations: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, Judiciary Square or ride the Circulator
For more information: 202-737-4215  

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