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Gothic tapestries from Spain, recently restored, on view together for first time at the National Gallery of Art
Probably produced under the direction of Passchier Grenier, tapestry merchant, The Conquest of Tangier, (detail) c. 1471-1475, wool and silk tapestry, overall: 400 x 1082 cm (157 1/2 x 426 in.), Collegiate Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Pastrana (Guadalajara). ©Fundación Carlos de Amberes. Photographs by Paul M.R. Maeyaert.
WASHINGTON, D.C.- The Pastrana Tapestries— - among the finest Gothic tapestries in the world—are on view together for the first time in the United States at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from September 18, 2011 through January 8, 2012. The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries features the recently restored set of four monumental tapestries that commemorate the conquest of two strategically located cities in Morocco by the king of Portugal, Afonso V (1432–1481).

Since the 17th century the tapestries have been the property of the Collegiate Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Pastrana, Spain, just 50 miles east of Madrid. Because of their outstanding quality and historical significance, the Spanish government listed them as cultural patrimony to be safeguarded during the Spanish Civil War. The only one of the four that has traveled previously to the U.S., The Conquest of Tangier, was included in the landmark National Gallery of Art exhibition Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration in 1991–1992.

"We are honored to be the first U.S. museum to offer this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Pastrana Tapestries together," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. "Exquisite and monumental, these tapestries depict one of the many events that would lead to the European voyages of exploration across the Atlantic."

After Washington, The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries will be on view at the Meadows Museum, Dallas, Texas (February 5–May 13, 2012); the San Diego Museum of Art (June 10–September 9, 2012); and the Indianapolis Museum of Art (October 5, 2012–January 6, 2013).

In 2008 the tapestries were sent to Belgium, where they originally had been woven more than five centuries earlier, for conservation treatment by the Royal Manufacturers De Wit in Mechlin.

The conservation of the tapestries was undertaken at the initiative of the Spanish Fundación Carlos de Amberes, with support from the Belgian InBev-Baillet Latour Fund, and the following Spanish institutions: Fundación Caja Madrid, Region of Castilla-La Mancha, Provincial Council of Guadalajara, and Diocese of Sigüenza-Guadalajara and Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Pastrana.

The conservation of the tapestries received the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards 2011.

The Pastrana Tapestries
Woven in the late 1400s, these monumental tapestries, each measuring 12 by 36 feet, depict Afonso V's conquest in 1471 of the Moroccan cities of Asilah and Tangier, located near the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. They are among the rarest and earliest examples of tapestries created to celebrate what were then contemporary events, instead of allegorical or religious subjects. The designer minimized the misery of warfare, reinventing the event with the heroic image of Afonso and the ideals of chivalry in mind.

Exquisitely rendered in wool and silk threads by Flemish weavers in Tournai, Belgium, the tapestries teem with vivid and colorful images of knights, ships, and military paraphernalia set against a backdrop of maritime and urban landscapes.

Three tapestries depict episodes in the Portuguese conquest of Asilah:

Landing at Asilah: Large sailing ships called "carracks" fly banners with the emblem of Afonso V and Portugal's patron Saint George. Two monkeys have boarded the ships, indicating that the army has reached the Moroccan coast, while Muslim residents of Asilah wield swords, shields, and spears behind the city walls. The Belgian weavers of the tapestry, unfamiliar with North African architecture, depicted a city that resembles one in Northern Europe with high-pitched roofs and pointed spires.

Siege of Asilah: Afonso and his son Prince João are in the Portuguese camp, while the army bombards the city with cannons, muskets, crossbows, and long pikes. Afonso is also depicted on horseback with a pennant flying overhead, bearing his emblem—a golden paddle wheel spewing life-giving drops of water.

Assault on Asilah: Portuguese soldiers scale the city walls while Afonso raises his sword, ready to enter the battle. The king is preceded by his standard-bearer, Duarte de Almeida, dressed in full armor and carrying Afonso's emblem. The victory at Asilah paved the way for the conquest of Tangier.

The fourth tapestry—The Conquest of Tangier —depicts the Portuguese cavalry and infantry marching in formation from the city in the background, probably Asilah, to the walls of Tangier. The people of Tangier expected the governor of Asilah, Muhammad al-Shaikh, to send reinforcements to help them repel the Portuguese army. Involved in his own war against the governor of Fez, he instead signed a treaty granting the Portuguese dominion over Tangier. Of the many inhabitants depicted walking into exile, a lone Moroccan wears a red tunic with an inscription that imitates Arabic script and may have been intended to indicate the beginning of the Muslim declaration of faith.

The capture of Tangier on August 24, 1471, secured Portuguese control over the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar and the maritime traffic between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Tangier remained a Portuguese enclave until 1661, when it was given to Charles II of England as part of the dowry of his bride, the Portuguese princess Catherine of Bragança. The Sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismaïl, reclaimed the city in 1684 when he blockaded the port and forced the British to withdraw.

It is likely that Passchier Grenier, the outstanding tapestry merchant of the day, carried out the commission in Belgium. His illustrious clients included crowned heads of Europe and the dukes of Burgundy for whom workshops in Tournai produced tapestries in the same style and technique as those made for Afonso V.

Gothic tapestries | Spain |


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