The Art of Power meets at the Prado

Opening on 9 March, the Museo del Prado is presenting the exhibition "The Art of Power. The Royal Armoury and the Court Portrait" organized in collaboration with Patrimonio Nacional, Sociedad Estatal para la Acción Cultural Exterior (SEACEX) and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Monday 08 March 2010

The exhibition offers an exceptional opportunity to see an important selection of works from the Prado displayed for the first time alongside the collection of armour belonging to Patrimonio Nacional. This is an unprecedented concept for an exhibition and one that will establish a direct comparison between the court portraits painted by leading masters such as Titian and Rubens and the armour worn by Spanish monarchs that symbolised their power at the height of that monarchy’s splendour.

35 paintings will be seen alongside 31 full suits of armour and pieces of armour loaned from the Royal Armoury in Madrid, considered the finest collection in the world along with that of the imperial collection in Vienna. Together, they will narrate the evolution and impact of the court portrait in the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Particularly noteworthy is the juxtaposition of Titian’s portrait of Charles V at Mühlberg and the impressive suit of equestrian armour belonging to the Emperor: a masterpiece of the art made by Desiderius Helmschmid, one of the leading armourers of the 16th century.

Based on the exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, last year, “The Art of Power” to be held at the Prado offers a more complete presentation of the subject. It focuses on the meaning and symbolism of armour and its representation in painting. From the viewpoint of an exhibition, this is an unprecedented subject that has only previously been analysed as a subsidiary issue in a few studies on the history of the portrait.

The Royal Armoury, Madrid

The Royal Armoury in Madrid was founded at the height of the Spanish crown’s international splendour and prestige. Largely created by the Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) and his son Philip II (1556-1598), it houses the personal arms and armour of the Spanish monarchs as well as military trophies and diplomatic and family gifts. These objects became key vehicles in the transmission of an ideology of power, while they also functioned as witnesses to the historical reality of Spain and Europe in the Renaissance and Baroque periods up the end of this chapter in Spanish history, which concludes with the 18th-century Bourbons.

The Armoury’s collection includes items dating from as early as the 13th century. In its entirety, it responds to the wish of Philip II (as expressed in his will) and that of his successors to tie the sovereign’s personal possessions to the Crown so that they were not subject to testamentary divisions.

The Exhibition

The exhibition takes the form of an introductory section and four monographic ones, entitled “The Court Portrait and the Armouries of Charles and Philip II”, “The Absence of Portraits in Armour in the second half of the 16th century and their Revival under Philip III prior to his Accession”, “The Royal Armoury in 17th-century Court Painting”, and “The Bourbon Armed Portrait: the French and Spanish Tradition”. Overall, the exhibition offers a broad overview of the issues pertaining to the relationship between armour and painting. Along with the 35 paintings and 27 pieces of armour that constitute the core of the exhibition, visitors can also see a tapestry, medals and sculptures that further explain the connections between the two principal groups.

The exhibition opens with an introductory room that aims to explain the importance of the royal collections of armour and painting at the Renaissance and Baroque courts as well as ideological and thematic connections. Notable exhibits in this room include the Parade Helm of Charles V with the symbol of the Golden Fleece, an object that emphasises the monarch’s position as Grand Master of that prestigious knightly Order, and the Burgonet of Charles V, symbolising the victory of Christianity over Islam. These objects are seen alongside paintings by Velázquez, Rubens and Teniers. Also on display are documents containing orders given to the Royal Armoury allowing Velázquez and Rubens access in order to copy details of arms and armour.

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