SAM's "Spain in the Age of Exploration" is simply exquisite

If you want to feel the might of the Spanish empire, stand next to one of the two towering sets of warhorse armor at Seattle Art Museum. Then imagine it on a real horse, rearing and frothing and bearing down on you, ridden by a faceless, steel-clad knight — the equivalent of a modern tank. "Spain in the Age of Exploration 1492-1819" is a show about power: where it leads and what it can buy.

If you're drawn to great paintings or ancient manuscripts, Native American artifacts or European dynasties, medical breakthroughs or massive real-estate transactions, there's something here to give you goosebumps. Which means for all those complainers who've been lamenting SAM's lackluster exhibitions: It's time to stop griping and get in line. "Spain" is the most thrilling show to come through SAM's second floor Special Exhibition space since the downtown museum opened in 1991.

Everything in the show works together to tell the story of Spain's era of imperialism, beginning in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabel sponsored Columbus on his transatlantic voyage, then continuing through the glittering epoch of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty and Spain's pragmatic entry into the age of Enlightenment. Spreading the Catholic faith was a motive for empire building — and also a tool, as the exhibit demonstrates. The exhibit is co-curated by Chiyo Ishikawa of SAM and Javier Morales of Patrimonio Nacional, a government institution that oversees all state cultural facilities in Spain. "Spain in the Age of Exploration" is greater than the sum of its parts — and the parts are as good as it gets.

"Yo, la reina"

The first gallery alone holds a feast. You enter to the spine-tingling image of Hieronymus Bosch's "Christ Carrying the Cross," a painter famous for portraying the folly of human behavior. In a daring composition diagonally broken by the cross, Christ is separated from the rest of humanity by the burden he bears. In fact, the swarm of onlookers seems to add their weight to his bent back. Each face represents a slice of human nature, from greed and ignorance to the forbearance of Jesus, whose cheeks are marked with delicate tears. It's a Christian allegory of the dual nature of human beings, with goodness separated from evil by the powerful lines of the cross.

Gracing the same gallery are four exquisite Juan de Flandes altar paintings, painted 500 years ago as part of a series commissioned by Queen Isabel. Each miniature image depicts one of the miracles of Christ: Each is worth getting lost in. Nearby hangs a portrait of the Queen herself, painted around 1497. Her face may have launched 1,000 ships, but unlike Helen, it wasn't because of her beauty. The precise lines of the Flemish painting reveal a woman of determination, religious faith and a deep sense of her own destiny. Next to the portrait hangs another precious object: a letter, penned by Isabel to Christopher Columbus, asking for a map of her new territories. It's dated Oct. 5, 1493, just before Columbus' second voyage, and signed, with a commanding flourish "Yo, la reina" "I, the queen."

The Habsburgs' decline

To fully appreciate "Spain," it's best to do some homework. The catalog provides an enjoyable refresher course in the intermingling of European royalty and the physical decline of the Habsburgs as a result of intermarriage. It helps to understand the symbolic meaning behind the royal portraits as well as the story told in their faces. There's strength and virility in matching full-length paintings of Charles V (grandson of Ferdinand and Isabel and the first Habsburg ruler) and his son Philip II (bedecked in the same suit of armor that's displayed next to him.) But as you move through the chronologically arranged exhibit, you can watch that strength diminish through the generations, in children with thin hair, puffy eyes, pale skin and jutting jaws. The Habsburg leadership of Spain comes to an end in the sad visage of Charles II, dubbed "the bewitched." He was deemed unfit for the throne and his frail body never produced an heir.

My favorite portrait in the show is a gripping Velázquez painting of poor Charles' father, Philip IV. You can see signs of the son's illness in the father's face, with his heavy jaw, red-rimmed eyes and lackluster hair hanging in limp curls against his cheeks. The empire he presided over was also in decline, with rampant debt and an overextended military that was losing its grasp. Velázquez painted Philip's flawed appearance with sensitive accuracy and revealed the nobility in that odd face. The king rewarded him by making Velázquez his court painter.

Unforgettable faces

Other unforgettable faces in "Spain" include Titian's powerful "Ecce Homo," a foreboding portrait of Christ in his crown of thorns next to a bearded figure who's presenting him. That man's face carries so much profound emotion that one can forgive Titian for the slightly awkward perspective of the painting, the man's oddly foreshortened arm. For a figure that represents Pontius Pilate, it makes him enormously sympathetic.

Nearby hangs a nearly full-scale bronze and wood crucifix by the Italian master Gianlorenzo Bernini, purchased by Velázquez on a trip to Rome. It was part of Velázquez's duties as court painter to help furnish the king's palaces and chapels with art. Bernini's quietly perfect Christ-figure is housed at the school of the monastery of El Escorial, where it's not on view to the public. We are lucky to have the loan of such a treasure, the only large sculpture in this show.

With some 100 objects to take in, there's no way to do "Spain" justice in a single walk-through. The paintings alone kept me engrossed on two visits, and I'm ready for more. Still, there are intriguing documents in the exhibition that can't be overlooked, including a letter from the Yucatan Indians to Philip II, dated Feb. 11, 1567, and written in their native language; and an illustrated, bound manuscript by Fray Pedro de Gante using pictographs and phonetic symbols to teach Christian doctrine to the Aztecs in their native Nahuatl tongue. On loan from the National Archives, Washington, D.C., is the title page and signature page of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 that marks the completion of the exhibition's timeframe. Signed in a firm hand by John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state, the handwritten treaty allots Spain $5 million to give up its land in Florida and the Northwestern U.S. — not a bad deal, it turns out.

Sheila Farr:

Now showing

"Spain in the Age of Exploration 1492-1819" 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, through Jan. 2. Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St., Seattle (206-654-3100 or visit the Seattle Art Museum site).