You might have an immediate sense of the difference of this big space, from the rooms you’ve just come through. It’s less like an art gallery and, to me, more like a European noble hall. The walls and ceiling are wooden panels.
Isabella created this room to house the set of monumental tapestries all around you. At the time these were made, tapestries—intricately woven from fine silk threads—were the most expensive art objects of their day. They were considered far more important than any painting or sculpture. They also provided insulation on cold walls—and they could be rolled up and carried from one sumptuous interior to another.
To get you oriented in this space, from wherever you are, stop and notice that one end of this huge room has a fireplace. The other doesn’t. Let’s meet at the end without the fireplace. Remember, you can always pause your device if you need more time.
Now, with your back at the wall at this end of the gallery, stand so the table with the red cloth is in front of you, and you’re facing the fireplace at other far end of the space. Now, look immediately to your left. That’s the tapestry I want to show you. It’s one of a series of five tapestries about an ancient Persian King, Cyrus the Great, that’s in this room. Cyrus is the young man in the center, wearing very fashionable red tights, held up by ribbons. He’s gesturing to the man who approaches him, holding a dead rabbit. Inside the rabbit is a secret letter to Cyrus, encouraging him to revolt against his grandfather and seize control of the Persian Empire. Instead of looking like a Persian king though, Cyrus is wearing the height of European fashion during the time this was made: the 16th century.
Now, move past the window to the right of this tapestry. We’re going to the nearby painting of the fashionable woman, above the desk. We know that Isabella loved and collected textiles; and she was surely was taken with this woman’s outfit. What a headpiece! Her green robe is edged with pearls. You know, this portrait has always reminded me a little bit of Isabella herself. The subject of this portrait—a woman not only fashionable, but fiercely determined—must’ve appealed to her. This is Saint Engracia, an early Christian martyr. She’s holding a tall palm leaf, symbolizing martyrdom. In her other hand—despite the calm of her face, and the emphasis on finery—she’s holding the spike that was driven through her skull when she wouldn’t denounce her belief.
From this painting, turn to your right. We’re going to the wall across the room, towards the windows looking down into the courtyard. On that wall, go to the right of the windows. There are four cases, covered with cloths. Of these four cases, look at the first case on the left. Lift the cloth to see another collecting interest of Isabella’s: Islamic manuscripts. The page on the left has to do with engineering. It dates from the year 1354, and it records a design for a “candle clock.” The page next to it—with the plants and charming birds—is an Arabic translation of an ancient Greek medical text. It was a guide to medicinal plants. The other three cases here also have Islamic manuscripts, including illustrations from the great Persian epic poem, the Shahnameh. Take your time perusing them, and when you’re ready, let’s meet at the fireplace at the other end of the room. Pause your device until you’re in front of the fireplace.
The painting above the fireplace depicts Saint Michael, trampling over a demon. You can see the demon splayed out across the bottom of the painting, under the saint’s feet. I really love how the Spanish artist, Benabarre, created such an imaginative hybrid creature. You can see its webbed feet. On its stomach is a second face, in red—with a gruesome yet comically smiling expression. This painting is a good example of how the meaning of an artwork can change over time. Some viewers today are troubled by the fact that the demonic figure has both black and red skin tones. And it raises, for them, troubling questions about historical representations of race.
Now, imagine the painting with a roaring fire in the fireplace beneath it! It’s like Isabella’s little joke; as if the fires of hell from which the demon came, are just below him. In fact, Isabella alluded to this herself, in a funny story of how—and why—she bought this painting:
As the story goes, Isabella found out that this painting was for sale, but the Deputy Director of the Harvard Art Museum got to it before she could. When she heard, she invited him to dinner—in this very room! Imagine them sitting at the dining table that’s on the other side of the piano. During the course of the meal she pointed to the then empty space above the fireplace. She said to her guest “I understand you’ve recently bought a 15th century Spanish painting. Wouldn’t it look marvelous over my fireplace?” Then, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, she picked a knife up off the dining table and jokingly implied that she might use it as a weapon if she needed to! Needless to say, he let her buy the painting.