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Detail of Frieze from the Castle of VÈlez Blanco

The Forgotten Friezes from the Castle of Vélez Blanco

May 12, 2000–February 2, 2003

Accompanied by a publication (in French)

An extraordinary group of six spectacular carved pine friezes has been lent to celebrate the Museum's reopening of the newly renovated Renaissance patio from the Fajardo castle at Vélez Blanco in southern Spain. Recently discovered at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, these sixteenth-century reliefs, each nearly twenty feet long, were once part of the decoration of the reception halls in the same castle and are boldly carved with classical and mythological scenes representing the Triumph of Julius Caesar and the Labors of Hercules.

In the narrative relief sculpture of Spain, the choice of subjects from classical history and mythology over religion was extremely rare and in this case reveals Fajardo's reverence for the culture of antiquity and his commitment to the humanist culture in which he had been educated. The triumphs of Julius Caesar and of Hercules were thematically linked in Renaissance thought, representing the heroic virtues to which great men should aspire. As Caesar's triumphs represented worldly conquests, the deeds of Hercules were held to symbolize victory over the vices of the soul. Fajardo's choice of such subject matter to decorate his palace put him in the vanguard of Renaissance taste outside of Italy.

Three of the friezes depict the Roman triumphal procession of Julius Caesar, showing him in his chariot followed by his famous horse and by citizens carrying victory branches; a group of soldiers carrying booty, holding a precious vessel and shaking laurel wreaths; and a cavalry procession. Fajardo, whose youth was steeped in the study of classical authors, was familiar with the details of Caesar's victories, and may have seen them as somewhat analogous to his own actions in battles against the Moors. While two of the friezes are based closely on a series of Venetian woodcuts first published in 1503 by Benedetto Bordon and Jacob of Strasbourg, the climactic cavalry procession appears to allude to more current victories—perhaps those of Don Pedro or his father Don Juan—because it combines mythological characters with a man in clerical robes, men in Moorish turbans, soldiers armed in various period styles, and a horseman bearing Fajardo's own shield. The carvers' individual artistic personalities are also apparent in the carvings, for in form as well as content they reveal an understanding of the classical Renaissance style then current in Italy.

The second group of three friezes depicts events from the life of Hercules, the mythological hero renowned for his courage and strength, who was one of the most frequently used figures of subject in Spanish art from the Renaissance onward. Each of the friezes consists of three narrative sections separated by shields bearing the arms of Fajardo and his wife. The style of the carved figures is boldly naturalistic, while the landscape, the composition of the visual space, and the handling of the narrative are much closer to late Gothic conventions than to the Renaissance style displayed in the Triumph of Caesar reliefs.

The scenes in the Labors of Hercules reliefs are as follows: in the first frieze, the birth of Hercules, Hercules overcoming the Nemean Lion, and Hercules slaying Cacus; in the second frieze, Hercules capturing the three-headed canine guardian of Hades, Cerberus, Hercules rescuing Hippodamia in a battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, and Hercules carrying the twin pillars; and in the third frieze, Hercules killing the dragon Ladon and supporting the heavens for Atlas, Hercules killing the Lernaean Hydra, and Hercules overcoming Antaeus.

An independent scholar, Gustina Scaglia, has linked the Vélez Blanco Hercules reliefs to a series of woodcuts first published in Venice around 1500 (attributed to an artist identified as Giovanni Andrea Vavassore), that was produced in a more elaborated version soon after. The reliefs were inspired directly by the latter version.

The six "forgotten friezes" in the exhibition were only recently rediscovered and identified. When the castle of Vélez Blanco was abandoned in the nineteenth century, the patio and friezes were removed; while it was known that the patio traveled to New York, the friezes vanished from public view. In 1992 they were located in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs—where they had been stored in unidentified crates since their bequest in 1905—by a curator at the museum, Monique Blanc, who researched and identified them.

Labors of Hercules, detail of Frieze from the Castle of Vèlez Blanco. Spanish, 1510–15. Pine wood. The Musèe des Arts Dècoratifs, Paris