Have you seen lanky King Phillip IV of Spain in his parade armor? Gaspar de Crayer’s portrait of the 17th century king is a familiar sight these days in Mexico City’s Historical Center. Phillip IV is portrayed on long colorful banners advertising the exhibit “Yo, el Rey, la monarquía española en el arte” (“I, the King, the Spanish monarchy in art”), currently on exhibit at the National Museum of Art.
In his right hand Phillip IV holds a scepter, his left hand rests on his sword — a standard way of portraying 16th and 17th century Spanish monarchs. His helmet is on a nearby table. The exhibit explains, Spanish kings do not wear a crown — they are sworn-in on the crown.
Early this year while visiting Madrid’s Prado Museum, I found myself running back and forth between rooms trying to compare paintings of Spanish monarchs and to see if different artists’ portrayals of kings and queens were indeed of the same individuals. If so, in which painting is the subject younger or older? All the while I wondered, “Why aren’t these portraits in the same gallery?”
I therefore found it refreshing to experience “I, the King,” curated to follow in chronological order. It is particularly interesting since many of the paintings in this show had never been exhibited together.
In the case of some kings it is possible to compare portraits painted at different ages during their very own lifetime — each by a different artist, loaned by different museums and collections. When exhibited chronologically side-by-side it’s easy to pick out physical traits and verify that the different paintings are indeed of the same person.
A homely portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella standing together is the first of the chronologically exhibited portraits. Fitting. It was Isabella who financed the first of Spain’s incursions into the western hemisphere. It was the union of Ferdinand and Isabella’s kingdoms that created Spain as a political unit.
“I, the King” is focused on Spanish monarchs who ruled New Spain, but it is bracketed with Mexico’s own monarchs. You’ll see Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II, a contemporary of Isabella and Ferdinand and the 19th-century short-lived emperors — Agustín de Iturbide (1822-23) and Maximilian of Habsburg (1864-67).
An anonymous oil on copper painting from 1698 depicts Moctezuma II, naming the king of Spain as successor to his empire and promising him obedience and tribute. This is likely a late 17th century attempt to legitimize the conquest.
Another — from an undisclosed private collection by an unknown European artist — depicts a stocky, full-bearded Moctezuma II as a discouraged Spanish vassal. Moctezuma’s right hand cedes a scepter and his left hand is over his heart. From his belt hangs an obsidian club. In the lower left corner of the painting the Aztec crown with an eagle atop a cactus sits on a tray on the floor.
In fact, Moctezuma II was most likely a lean-muscled warrior with no facial hair. But, as always, to the victor goes the recording of history. I suggest you take this portrait with a large grain of salt.
Physical characteristics of Moctezuma II were not recorded by conquering Spaniards and the Aztecs had yet to develop an interest in portraiture. However the Maya had taken portraiture to the heights of “carving in stone.” While visiting “I, the King,” my mind kept traveling to an exhibit at the Lithic Museum in Tikal, Guatemala, which owes its fame to portraying rulers in chronological order — Maya kings of Tikal carved on stelae.
When a stela is discovered at an archeological site it’s given a number or a letter — which becomes its name. Stelae are numbered in the order in which they are found — an order that has nothing to do with the order in which they were carved.
They are arranged in chronological order in the Lithic Museum, a marvelous repository of magnificent stelae and altars protected in a roofed open-space. Their places in the archeological site have been filled with accurate, well-rendered copies.
In these stone portraits, Tikal’s rulers carry a ceremonial serpent bar. They hold it in the crook of their arms, against their chests, with the palms of their hands turned outward. As Linda Schele and Peter Mathews explain in The Code of Kings, “The serpent bar’s original function was to symbolize ‘sky’ based on the homophony in Maya languages between Kan, ‘sky,’ and Kan, ‘snake.’ The bar also symbolized the ‘sky umbilicus that connected kings to their sources of supernatural power and the ecliptic path across the sky. Gods and ancestors materialized in the open mouths of the serpents.”
Good thing this was all discovered relatively recently. I’m sure the Spanish monarchs would all have wanted similar scepters with which to solidify their concept of divine right.