Disembarkation in Asilah (Desembarco en Arcila)

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Disembarkation in Asilah (Desembarco en Arcila)
The large Portuguese fleet arrives in the city of Asilah under the command of Afonso V of Portugal, who appears at least twice in the company of Prince John in a colourful narration of successive scenes full of characters.

400 ships and 30.000 men

According to the top banner of the tapestry, written in Latin with Gothic characters, the Portuguese fleet departed from Lisbon on 15th August 1471, comprised of 400 ships and a contingent of 30,000 men. They reached the African coast six days later, docking and disembarking with difficulty due to a rough sea. Part of the expedition drowned at this point, as shown in the tapestry. The text highlights the heroic virtues of the monarch, praising his courage and defense of Christianity.

Coat of arms of Portugal

Three scenes make up this tapestry, in which the motley style of the period makes it difficult to follow the story. From left to right, we can see the large Portuguese fleet whose ships are equipped with the coat of arms of Portugal, St George’s Cross and other standards. One of them in the foreground shows the royal standard, thus indicating the royal ship. The emblem of Afonso V, the rodizio espargindo goats (the wheel spraying drops), is a cogwheel alluding to the legendary martyrdom of St. Catherine, of whom the King was a devotee. It is used as a symbol of the struggle against the infidels and, along with St George’s Cross, it conferred a Crusade-like nature on the Portuguese enterprise in Africa.

An eventful disembarkation

In the second scene we can see the Portuguese troops approaching land, commanded by the king. The monarch is preceded by two trumpets, the royal standard and his personal emblem. Some soldiers, fully equipped, head for the coast on small boats. The rest follow their ruler, although some ships are sinking while their crews try to survive by holding fast to the wrecked boats. The scene draws its sense of a narrative from the multiple representations of the king and its display of successive episodes in a single space. In this fashion, the Portuguese king marches with his troops into the enemy town accompanied by Prince John, while some soldiers continue in their attempts to fish their drowned comrades out of the water.

A most opulent Moorish city

Finally, on the right side we can see the city of Asilah, where defending troops are holing up behind the walls, brandishing spears, cutlasses and leather shields. The banner refers to the town as ‘a most opulent Moorish city’. Despite this, it resembles more closely a European city than a North African one, as the weavers probably followed an established model.

The action of the monarch, continuing to lead his troops in the face of danger, and the heraldic display turn this scene into an extolment of Portugal and its king, presenting him as a hero of Christianity, a true miles Christi who contributed to the expansion of the Portuguese empire and the defense of the Faith through his campaigns.

Series Conquest of Asilah and Tangier by Afonso V of Portugal (The Pastrana tapestries)

First tapestry in the series

Manufacture Tournai workshops, a likely manufacture by Passchier Grenier, c. 1471-1475

Fabric Silk and wool

Size 368 (left)/357 (right) x 1108 (max)/1107 (min) cm

Location Museum of the Collegiate Church of Pastrana (Guadalajara)

Origin A bequest in 1667 by the 4th Duke of Pastrana and 8th Duke of the Infantado


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