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Vivid tapestries bring ancient battle to life at Meadows


The following story from the Feb. 7, 2012, edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

February 23, 2012

By Gaile Robinson

DALLAS -- There is no record of King Afonso V of Portugal having a public relations person, but in the aftermath of his successful campaigns into North Africa in the late 1470s, he found a way to announce his military victories so that no one was likely to forget that it was he who wrested control of the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco.

By ousting Muslim control of the area, he cleared the way for the great Portuguese naval explorations in the following century.

Now tapestries may not sound compelling or even very interesting, but if you never see another tapestry exhibit, "The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries" at SMU's Meadows Museum of Art will give you an appreciation for the medium that no other is likely to do.

Afonso commissioned the four self-aggrandizing tapestries that depict the Siege of Asilah and the occupation of Tangier after the battles, and they are some of the finest and largest Gothic tapestries in existence. They were made in Belgium, but who designed then and how they became the property of the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Pastrana, Spain, is a matter of speculation.

It is a tragedy that the artist cannot be credited, as every inch of these tapestries -- which are 36 feet long or more -- is a roiling mass of bodies, weaponry, architectural details and the chaos of battle. There are hundreds of figures in each work, and each soldier's face is a unique portrait that shows the intensity of the conflict. The various suits of armor, weaponry, canon, firearms and sabers are depicted with such accuracy that historians suspect the works were made from oral and written accounts of the soldiers.

Their battle dress is spot-on, but liberties were taken with the setting. Architectural elements and floral decorations are more northern European than those found in North Africa, suggesting the artist might be more closely affiliated with Belgium than Portugal.

The three-day battle for the city of Asilah was quite bloody, with significant losses of life on both sides. It is recorded in three of the tapestries, Landing at Asilah, Assault on Asilah and Siege of Asilah. Afonso and his son Prince Joâo can be seen these pieces on horseback, bedecked in sumptuous armor and brocade fabric. Afonso is easy to locate in the three Asilah works, as his standard-bearer, Duarte de Almeida, walks in front of him carrying the king's flag, which has a water wheel on it.

Neither of the royals is depicted in the Fall of Tangier. The Tangerines, hoping to avoid the fate of Asilah, simply evacuated the city. On that work, you can see Afonso's army on the left and the fleeing townspeople on the right. A lone Portuguese solider is seen above the city's battlements, hoisting the royal banner of Portugal.

The name of Afonso's standard is known because he was the hero of the battle for Asilah. He lost both hands during the siege, yet he fought on. He received a hero's welcome in Portugal, and his armor is one of the great treasures of the time. Yet it, too, found its way to Spain. It is usually on display at the Toledo Cathedral, but for this stop on the exhibit's tour, the Meadows requested the loan and it is displayed with the tapestries.

The Meadows mounted de Almeida's armor and the four tapestries in its large upstairs gallery. The simplicity of the display is profoundly moving, and the scale and size of the tapestries is so similar to that of a movie screen that the roiling mass of bodies in battle seems animated. The small side galleries contain 15th- and 16th-century navigational maps from the DeGolyer Library and paintings and sculptural works from the Meadows permanent collection that are from the period. There is also a film presentation on how tapestries of this period were made and large photographs that show how the Pastrana tapestries were repaired before their world tour.

Really, if you need to broaden your knowledge of art history to include an appreciation for tapestries, this exhibit at the Meadows is a quickie course that covers most of the need-to-know basics, and it includes four of the most fantastic tapestries in existence. The museum is making it so easy, and the experience is so eye-opening, that excuses for not attending will sound like pure laziness.

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

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