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Phillip II Receiving the News of the Loss of the Invincible Armada
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Phillip II Receiving the News of the Loss of the Invincible Armada proves the old adage true, it’s not the size that matters, but how you use it. 

The “it” in this case refers both to the painting’s “Invincible” subject, and the canvas itself. Both were intentionally large and both lost their respective battles. 

The dude with the sweet ruffled collar is Phillip II of Spain and he’s getting some terrible news: His “Invincible” Spanish Armada has been defeated (do you need spoiler alerts for history?). So named because it was inconceivable in 1588 that 130 huge ships carrying 2,500 guns, 8,000 seamen, and almost 20,000 soldiers could possibly lose against the comparatively tiny and poor English navy. But lose it did. The ships were designed as troop and supply transport for invasion once the fleet landed in England/ the Netherlands. The thing is, you kind of have to get to land before you can invade and the larger the ship the more difficult it is to a) out maneuver the small and swift English navy and b) handle the notoriously rough English seas. As if these problems weren’t enough, the British had created a series of fire beacons along the coast so they were 100% ready when the Spanish sailed in. Not only did Queen Elizabeth have time to give her famous “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a Kingspeech, but rumor has it that cocky S.O.B. Sir Francis Drake insisted on finishing a game of bowls before going off to beat the Spanish. 

In the first stage of their eventual defeat the Spanish were set upon by flaming British ships in the Battle of Blackwater the English Channel near Plymouth. In the days which followed both sides bore losses but the British ultimately proved victorious. The Spanish fleet headed north to distance themselves from the English navy, but when rounding the north of Scotland faced a horrible storm which damaged multiple ships. If that wasn’t enough, many which survived the storm sought refuge in Ireland thinking that the Catholic country would show them sympathy. Instead of sympathy they were met with slaughter. Oh, did I mention that at this point men were out of supplies and began dying of scurvy and dysentery? Needless to say that the 67 or so ships which remained returned to Spain with their sails between their legs. The defeat wasn’t just embarrassing and costly, but it also gave those smug English Protestants “evidence” that God was on their side.

So why would a Spanish born artist want to put one of Spain’s worst moments on blast by painting it over 7 ft tall and 9 ft wide? Two reasons: irony and (ironically) desire to win. This painting was created towards the end of the Spanish Empire. Spain had just been through a series of wars with rebels in Cuba and was about to enter into the Spanish-American War. It is theorized that Elena wanted to highlight the size of the defeat while alluding to the existing follies of Spain’s political ambitions. She also really wanted to win a prize for the painting and was pandering to the judges’ taste for large compositions. She should have heeded her own warning; she did not receive first prize for this painting and soon afterwards faded into obscurity as large history paintings were outmoded.