The Invention of Glory

By Julie Somers

Ahh summer… a time for sunshine, holidays and a Friday blog post from California!

This week I visited one of my favorite places in San Diego, The Balboa Park. Home to more than fifteen museums and the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is an exceptional place to spend the day. Yet, I had a purpose. I was there to see the Gothic tapestries from Portugal in the current exhibition titled “The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries” at the San Diego Museum of Art. My interest in textile art really comes from my attempts at knitting and embroidery and my fascination with one of the most famous 11th century works, The Bayeux Tapestry.

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Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings 1066

Tapestry is traditionally defined as a pictorial wall hanging. By the fifteenth century artistic tapestry production was gaining popularity and in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century, the Gobelins Royal Factory in Paris produced many exceptional pieces for royal palaces, while major tapestry-making centers existed at Arras, Tournai, and Brussels to name a few.

The medieval production of tapestries primarily served two main purposes. Hung on a castle wall they were used for decoration and for warmth. The exhibition in San Diego however reminds us that tapestries could also function as commemorative objects, telling a story of a particular event in vivid color, amazing detail and grand size.

At the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, an exhibition featuring Pastrana Tapestries of Portugal introduces the visitor to this exquisite textile art. Four monumental panel tapestries depict Afonso V’s conquest of two Moroccan cities near the Strait of Gibraltar in 1471. Most probably created in Tournai, Belgium by Flemish weavers in the late 1400’s, the tapestries illustrate the skill that was required to create such artwork.  In addition to the narrative images, the panels also have a text in Latin woven into the top boarder. The words reiterate the colorful scenes and tell the viewer what stage of the conquest they are witnessing.

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The Pastrana Tapestries from the Collegiate Church of Pastrana in Guadalajara, Spain

The illustrations in the panels are striking in their size and, due to the efforts of restoration, the bright colors stand out once again. The detail of the King, Afonso V and his son Prince João II, on horseback in full armor is an example of expert storytelling and craftsmanship.

Unique to these panels is its depiction of  contemporary warfare in Europe, in contrast to the typical images of biblical or mythological themes. Yet, that is what reminds me of the Bayeux Tapestry. Separated by hundreds of years, both of these pictorial wall hangings are telling a contemporary story, commemorating a part of history that remains in the mind after viewing these woven works of art.

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The Pastrana Tapestries from the Collegiate Church of Pastrana in Guadalajara, Spain

It was a rare opportunity to see all four panels displayed together. The restoration techniques of the tapestry are also an integral and fascinating part of the exhibit. The current exhibition at The San Diego Museum of Art ends September 9, 2012 and well worth spending some time at a museum on a sunny summer day in California.

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