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Royal armor and portraits at the National Gallery of Art

A second Spanish-accented exhibition, on painter Luis Meléndez, is bound for Los Angeles.

July 12, 2009|Stanley Meisler

WASHINGTON — Suits of armor were once so finely wrought that an attacking lance would glance off their smooth metal harmlessly. But then, as the Middle Ages moved into the Renaissance, European kings demanded that the craftsmen finish the armor with elaborate decoration. All the engraving and embossing upset the surface of the armor. A lance would no longer slip away. But that did not matter.

Decorated armor was for show, so that the kings would look majestic and powerful and indestructible, especially in portraits by great painters.

One of the grandest collections of decorated armor belongs to the Royal Armory of Spain. The National Gallery of Art has now brought some of the finest samples of this Spanish armor and placed them alongside portraits of armor-bearing kings and noblemen by such painters as Diego Velazquez, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. Both National Gallery and Spanish Armory officials say this has never been done before.

The exhibition, "The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits From Imperial Spain," which closes Nov. 1, is part of an extraordinary Spanish summer at the National Gallery. A second but far different exhibition, "Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life," closes in late August and goes on to Los Angeles. There is an ironic link between the shows, for Melendez tried for many years during the 18th century to become a court painter of kings but failed despite enormous talent.

The rare Melendez exhibition will be featured at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from Sept. 23 to Jan. 3. The Spanish show of armor and portraits has no other venue than Washington.

The most spectacular piece in the armor show is a helmet designed by the Milanese armorer Filippo Negroli in 1533 for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (who was also Charles I of Spain). It is on display to show how elaborate an armorer could be in the Renaissance. Negroli embossed and gilded curls on the top of the helmet and the strands of a neat beard on the bottom so that Charles would seem to show his light brown hair and beard even when he donned the helmet and covered them up.

Charles V's favorite suit of armor was made by a well-known German armorer, Desiderius Helmschmid of Augsburg, in 1544. It is known as the Muhlberg armor because the emperor wore it when he defeated German Protestant princes at the battle of Muhlberg three years later. It is distinguished by thick gilded bands and a medallion of the Virgin Mary on the breastplate.

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A suit's shine

The Venetian artist Titian painted a full-length portrait of Charles in the armor, but that painting has been lost. Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, a Spanish court painter, made several copies a half-century later, and one is on display alongside the Muhlberg armor. Pantoja's 1608 copy, which usually hangs in the Escorial library in Spain, makes the gilded stripes stand out against a black patina that covered most of the armor. The portrait's suit of armor, in fact, seems to shine like burnished leather.

Another suit of armor made by Helmschmid, this for King Philip II, the son of Charles, was celebrated by three noted artists. This armor is known as the flower-pattern suit because it is decorated with wide gilded strips of intricate bluish flowers. Titian painted Philip II in the armor in a full-length portrait in 1550 and 1551. That painting, which did not come to Washington, is regularly displayed in the Prado museum in Madrid.

Rubens, the Flemish artist, used the Titian portrait with the flower-pattern armor as his model when he painted "Philip II on Horseback" almost a century later, between 1630 and 1640. The new painting, which belongs to the Prado, was evidently commissioned by Philip IV when he realized that the palaces in the Madrid area had equestrian portraits of all the Renaissance kings of Spain except his grandfather. Since Philip II was now perched on a horse, Rubens had to add some pieces to the armor in the Titian painting. But he did not render them correctly. He probably examined Philip II's armor in the Royal Armory but then painted them from memory elsewhere.

A third Prado painting, "Portrait of Juan Francisco de Pimental in Armor," usually attributed to Velazquez, features the same armor. (Although specialists in Spain believe this is a genuine Velazquez, there is some disagreement about this elsewhere.) As a high nobleman and military commander, Pimental had his own armor. But Velazquez, as a court painter, had the right to borrow Philip II's flower-pattern armor from the Royal Armory and pose his model in it. The exhibition displays this armor in front of both the Rubens and Velazquez portraits.

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