- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

Royal Armor and Portraits From Imperial Spain,” is, in many respects, an eye-opener. For one thing, it’s actually two exhibitions intertwined. Each could stand on its own, but both gain in impact from the combination.

One is a panoply of magnificently crafted armor made to order for the Spanish royals in the 16th and 17th centuries; the other is an array of fine — if mostly familiar — portraits of Spanish monarchs encased in the same suits of burnished, gilded, etched, embossed, lacquered or otherwise decorated steel. The result is a remarkable display of late Renaissance machismo — with hardly a woman in sight. The scale of the exhibition, which also includes some huge tapestries, has been unknown before in the National Gallery.

Today, the most powerful leader on Earth, the president of the United States, has to make do with the effect of a dark suit. Though he is the commander in chief, he doesn’t wear a military uniform. The symbols of political power have shrunk to an ever-present small briefcase called “the football,” which contains the country’s nuclear launch codes, and a protective phalanx of inscrutable men and women in dark glasses.

Foreign visitors typically are surprised that there is no changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the White House — a ritual performed at virtually every royal or presidential palace in Europe.

However, in the Age of Absolutism, the kings of Spain could transform themselves into symbols of martial and sovereign power by having themselves portrayed in a “garniture,” an ensemble of magnificent ceremonial armor. This was not the protective covering worn to confront the enemy, but rather the armor worn in the courtly, chivalric context of parades, pageants and portrait sittings.

In more than a single instance, a magnificent garniture also compensates for shortcomings in the subject’s physical appearance. Few of the denizens of Spain’s Habsburg dynasty won prizes in the looks department, but King Charles II, as portrayed by Juan Carreno de Miranda in 1681, certainly needs all the help he can get from his German armorer, Wolfgang Grosschedel.

The opening item of the show pays tribute to Charles V, who looms over the exhibition just as his vast collection of armor dominates the Royal Armory collection in Madrid. This is a sculpted “portrait” helmet with curly blond hair and beard. One of the great set pieces of the exhibition is a complete suit of the emperor’s armor by his favorite armorer, Desiderius Helmschmid, the most famous armorer of his day, mounted on a full-size horse similarly accoutered in armor and red damask.

Also in the show is a Helmschmid garniture made for King Philip II. Considered one of the culminating works of the German Renaissance, it has gold-edged seams, embossed combat scenes from antiquity and decorative motifs of flowers, eagles and nymphs.

Unlike his father, Philip II liked neither armor nor the clash of battle, but he knew the value of a strong image. To mark his most important victory, over the French in 1557, he commissioned Anthonis Mor to paint a full-length portrait of him in the armor and long brown boots he wore at the surrender of France’s troops at St. Quentin.

However, the exhibition is designed to send a more contemporary message. The Spanish government’s national heritage foundation offered the exhibition exclusively to the National Gallery because Madrid clearly hopes to raise its cultural profile in Washington as a new administration is settling in. The Spanish invasion at the NGA started in May with the exhibition of works by the 18th-century still-life master Luis Melendez and continues in February 2010 with an exhibition of religious art from Spain’s churches and museums.

It’s no secret that relations between the Bush administration and the government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero were strained after 2004, when Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq. The exhibition catalog has a foreword by King Juan Carlos, together with a message of greeting from President Obama. The king says the show “will undoubtedly lead to a deeper understanding of Spain by the American people,” just as U.S.-Spanish ties have “always set a pattern of common endeavors in the cultural, political and social spheres.”

Mr. Obama, however, refers only to “a shared past” between the United States and Spain.

An exhibition in Washington celebrating an era when monarchs ruled vast empires with absolute power as a divine right stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama’s sense of the limits of American power in the world and his habit of apologizing for the perceived excesses of his predecessors in the White House.

At the same time, the exhibition is a deliberate reminder that, like the United States today, Imperial Spain under Philip II was the foremost power in the known world, with its empire stretching across Europe, including parts of Germany and into Italy as far south as Sicily. In ordering highly expensive armor from German and Italian armorers, Spanish kings thus were actually buying local.

The other part of Imperial Spain — and the source of its great wealth — was in the New World. At the time, South and Central America were largely under Spanish colonial rule, but you’d never know it from this exhibition. There is no reference to this sizable chunk of Spain’s possessions. In truth, they don’t fit the context of the exhibition. Spanish kings saw them only in terms of the gold and silver they supplied, and the new conversions to the Catholic faith. Still, given the size and power of America’s Hispanic population, it was perhaps also a tactful omission in the post-colonial age.

WHAT: “The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits From Imperial Spain”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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