Editors' pick

The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain

Mixed Media, Painting/Drawing

Editorial Review

At National Gallery, Dressed to Impress

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

Armor -- the original power suit. When worn by kings and emperors, if only for pageants and tournaments, it sends an unmistakable message: Don't forget who's boss.

Whether seen up close, close enough to make out the elaborate details and to interpret their symbolism -- a closeness that would, of course, entail special access -- or visible only as a glint of stunning sunlight on burnished metal on a crowded parade route, it's a reminder of who's in charge.

That is the theme of the National Gallery of Art's "The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits From Imperial Spain," an exhibition of late 15th- to 18th-century armor, accompanied by portraits of members of Spain's Habsburg dynasty wearing the same pieces. According to Alvaro Soler del Campo, the show's curator and director of Madrid's Royal Armory, from among whose treasures the show has been assembled, armor is the physical embodiment of a sentiment best expressed in the "Star Wars" movies slogan: May the Force be with you.

His pop-cultural reference isn't flippant. You can still see the legacy of these protective -- and yes, more than a little flashy -- bodysuits in the costumes of such superheroes as Batman. There's a propagandistic value in wearing gear that accomplishes what even steroids can't.

As impressive as the exhibition is, several of the coolest items in the show weren't worn by kings, but by their horses. What did you expect? A guy whose outfit might contain scenes comparing him to such heroes of legend as Jason, Samson, Hercules, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar needs a pimped-out ride. One horse helmet in particular is a must-see. Called a chanfron and crinet (or face and neck protection), it belonged to King Philip III and would have turned his horse into a dragon, complete with scales, horn and tusks. "Just imagine this in winter," says Soler del Campo. The snort of the animal's breath, steaming in the cold air, would be enough to complete the illusion of a fire-breathing beast.

But armor impresses on levels other than the visual.

The suits on view here cost many times more than even the priciest portrait painted by Rubens, van Dyck or Velzquez (all of whom are represented here). How much would one set you back? It's hard to compare gold ducats to today's dollars, says Soler del Campo. But it's helpful to think of a complete set -- called a garniture, and often including interchangeable parts and accessories for both horse and rider -- as being comparable in value to a private jet.

It was Philip II, king of Spain from 1556 to 1598, who established the Royal Armory when he bought the collection assembled by his father, Emperor Charles V -- and set it aside for posterity -- when Charles tried to sell it off to pay debts. It's Philip, then, who is to be credited for having the foresight to recognize something that makes this show the stunner that it is -- and as much about art as about arms. That is the fact that Charles V was able to put together what Soler del Campo says is recognized today as simply the "best collection of luxury armor."

Before or since when?

"Ever," says Soler del Campo, who hopes that, if nothing else, this show will dispel one common misconception. "Everybody thinks armor is simply a military object. This is simply not true."