Spain in the Age of Exploration Seattle Art Museum
100 University Way, 654-3255
Through Jan 2.

The second paragraph on the first page of the brochure for SAM's exhibit Spain in the Age of Exploration makes this point: "The exhibition focuses on Spain's perception of itself and on the empire's role within the expanded European world..." The only problem with the statement is that it's not accurate enough; the splendid works of art (paintings by Bosch, Titian, Velazquez), books of faith, legal documents, science instruments, battle armor, and nature studies that are neatly displayed on the second floor of the museum focus not on Spain's perception of itself but on its royalty's perception of itself.

We can be even more specific than that because the royalty of today no longer has the luxury of seeing everything in such perfectly suitable terms (maps, knowledge structures, and centers of financial and military power have radically changed from the halcyon days of exploration). This is the world according to their ancestors--the queens and kings who lived and dreamed their mad dreams from the end of the 15th century to the start of the 19th century. During this time, as in the present, not everyone in Spain was a king or queen or bishop, and the perception that the majority of Spaniards (the pawns) had of eternal God, ephemeral existence, and society as a whole was definitely not the same as the very few who had the power to send ships across the great seas of the world in search of souls and gold.

A few years after ordering Muslims to either convert to Christianity or leave the country, and giving 200,000 Jews no other option than to leave, the most powerful people in Spain became the most powerful people in the world. The country was consolidated, important wars were won, and the strength of the queen's navy was unmatched. What now hangs on the royal red, golden yellow, and minty green walls of the gallery and is encased by unbreakable glass, are tools, documents, and scenes from the new and old worlds that once orbited the City of God, El Escorial--the radiant center of Spain's power.

Now, everyone knows that the son of Charles I, Philip II (whose portrait graces the cover of the exhibit's brochure), was not much of a king, that the seeds of the empire's decline were mostly sown during his long reign--from 1556 to 1598. Philip II had several disastrous wars, adventures, and policies, and left Spain in bad shape when he died two years before the close of the century. His son, Philip III, made matters worse by, among other things, expelling 250,000 remaining Muslims between 1609 and 1614. The purge of these industrious people hit the economy hard and critically weakened a kingdom that was expanding everywhere else except in Europe, where it was rapidly contracting. But the history of these and other significant failures is not part of this exhibit; what we see instead is what they (the kings, queens, bishops) themselves saw: their own goodness and greatness.

For all of his conscious life, Philip II believed that he was sent to Earth by none other than God to make sure that things got done His way. (The country that purchased fateful Florida from Spain in 1819 for $5 million--the document of the sale, the Adams-Onis Treaty, is in the exhibit--presently has a president who holds a similar belief about is his purpose on Earth.) Looking at the life-large portrait of Philip II by Antonis Mor we feel not so much how great the king was but how great he thought he was.

With vampire-red lips, the puffed-up king proudly stands in his gold and black armor. One hand rests on the knob of his sword's handle; the other hand clasps a strict stick that could beat the silliness out of any living thing. Only the extraordinary Netherlandish detail of Antonis Mor, Phillip II's court painter, could best express the soul of a man who considered every aspect of himself to be perfect. The painting is perfect. And as much as you want to hate the king who is looking down on you, putting you in your place, you can't help but be seduced by his own sense of power--a power that is self-sufficient, like the sun. You could mine all of your heart and mind and never find enough energy to generate the kind of greatness that radiates from the king of Spain.

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