But come face to face with them at the National Gallery of Art, where they are on display together for the first time in the United States, and they burst into life. These late Gothic works, made just before the Spanish “discovery” of the New World — and rare examples of 15th-century tapestry created in response to actual historical events — are fired with the energies of the Renaissance, the martial and intellectual restlessness that was already being felt up and down the coast of Africa and that would soon extend to North America.
The monumental panels, each measuring 12 by 36 feet, require a large room and ideal light to breathe. With space for the visitor to move around in front of them, taking in the detail and grand design, they become animate, and the density of visual data that makes them look confused on paper disappears. Pick a spot, work outward, follow the drama, and suddenly they resolve into a meaningful narrative.
“They are a little hard to figure out,” says Barbara von Barghahn, a professor of art history at George Washington University and a specialist on Portuguese and Spanish art. Barghahn, who will deliver a National Gallery lecture on the tapestries in December, suggests beginning with the banners of Afonso V, the Portuguese king who conquered the North African cities of Asilah and Tangier in 1471. Three of the tapestries document the battle at Asilah, and they feature Afonso prominently, arrayed in armor and fine cloth, riding on a richly caparisoned horse. The banners, which depict a water wheel shedding drops in all directions, become a leitmotif in the panels, identifying the king, his ships and his army.
The tapestries, probably made for display in a large public room of a royal palace, glorified Afonso, and his line, at a time when Portugal was in contest with Spain for regional dominance, eager to extend its commercial and military influence into Africa, and hungry for the accolades that the Catholic Church heaped on rulers who killed Muslims. The persistence of his banners as a visual element not only grounds the viewer, it reinforces royal hagiography.
The tapestries also feature long, horizontal blocks of text woven into the top of the panels, offering basic details of their narrative. According to one inscription, the landing at the town of Asilah was complicated by rough seas, which “made it extremely dangerous to disembark the soldiers on land.” In the center right of the panel, fragments of soldiers — a torso, a head, a helmet — are seen at odd angles to the otherwise strongly vertical and horizontal layout. These are some of the 200 men who drowned in the wreck of small and overloaded boats attempting the amphibious assault.