Altar pieces and ohter devotional paintings

The painting collection of this Museum comprises works dating from the 15th to the 20th century. The paintings originate, mainly, from the convents of the city and its environs, which accounts for their predominately religious themes. The exceptions are some works from the 18th and the following centuries, acquired in part, but mostly the result of donations.

Through approximately thirty works, we attempt to convey the panorama of Portuguese painting from the 1400s to the Age of Enlightenment. The religious theme is a constant throughout this trajectory being intrinsically related to the Jewish-Christian culture and to classical origins, with its references in Greco-Roman mythology.

There are considerable gaps in the representation of 19th and 20th century painting, the collection being confined to Portuguese artists, with emphasis on the works of Henrique Pousão, Columbano and Manuel Jardim.

The greater part of Portuguese painting from the reigns of D. Afonso V and D. João II is essentially to be found in retabular art, developing under the influence of the new Flemish painting, although maintaining markedly Hispanic or even regional traits. The diversity of influences and the very heterogenic quality of these paintings have made it difficult to identify the artists and their workshops as well as their sources.

The scarcity of known works, many of which were damaged or underwent modification at a later date, limits our understanding of the very course of the evolution of 15th century Portuguese painting. ‘The Lady of the Rose’ and the ‘Triptych of Saint Claire’ (figs. 1 and 2 ) are good examples of such obstacles and difficulties.

Throughout this century and, above all, in the century that followed, various factors led to the rise of a new social class in Europe, the bourgeoisie. This explains the development of the portrait and the emergence of satirical works and other profane themes.

The reason for such developments lays in the fact that these were themes more readily adaptable to the small-scale of easel painting – with the exception of the traditional depictions such as representations of the Virgin and Child.

These paintings were produced in large quantities in the factories of Bruges and Antwerp, where gentlemen from all over Europe could acquire them on the open market. This is how small paintings by good Flemish artists reached Portuguese collections. The museum has two such paintings: ‘Virgin and Child’ (fig. 3) , and the ‘Holy Face’, a painting recalling Byzantine icons, due as much to the frontal view of the figure as to the treatment of the gold background.

Another way of acquiring works of art was to order them directly from Flanders, where, as of the first half of the 15th century, close trade relations were held with Portugal. At the beginning of the following century, particularly during the reign of D. Manuel I, the monarchs acquired huge retables or simple triptychs for monasteries under their patronage. In Coimbra, the early convent of Santa Clara and the Convento de Santa Maria de Celas were the most favoured. For the Convento de Santa Clara, the agent Silvestre Nunes commissions the ‘Triptych of Christ’ (fig. 4) from the painter Quentin Metsys, which arrives in Portugal in 1517. In 1525, D. João III pays for the transport of a retable for the high altar of Santa Maria de Celas, which the Abbess, D. Leonor de Vasconcelos, had commissioned from northern Europe. The Museum has four panels preserved from this group and an ‘Annunciation’ remains in the church of the Convent, though they are somewhat amputated.


Such orders had a huge impact on contemporary Portuguese pictorial production: therefore, until the golden period of the Discoveries in the mid-16th century, it was not uncommon for creations from workshops in Lisbon to imitate the background scenery, secondary scenes with a narrative alluding to the central theme, ‘sculptural’ treatment of drapery, outlining of forms, and a palette of bright, clear colours.

However, in Coimbra painting did not evolve at the same pace as in the capital. One reason for this was tradition, that meant that local art production continued to carve retables from Ançã stone.

The first school of painting documented in Coimbra was founded by Vicente Gil in the last decade of the 15th century and was maintained by his son, Manuel Vicente and grandson Bernardo Manuel, until the end of the following century. The works attributed to Vicente Gil show a strong affinity with Gothic models, making it difficult to accept that they were painted by a 16th century artist (fig. 5)

The preference for painting from the North is still a result of the continued flow of Flemish painters to work in Portugal during the beginning of the 16th century, where they trained disciples such as Cristovão de Figueiredo and Garcia Fernandes. During the second quarter of the century, these artists worked in collaboration with Gregório Lopes and Cristovão de Utrech in the Ferreirim Monastery when, as a result of this commission, the four artists were given the epithet ‘Masters of Ferrerim’.

The practice of working in partnership on large projects, so characteristic of this period, makes it difficult to identify an individual work: this can be seen, for example, in the panel of St. Peter which is now on display. The same applies to the identification of the authorship of the ‘Triptych of the Apparition of Christ to the Virgin’, dated from 1531, traditionally attributed to Garcia Fernandes (fig. 8)

Recent studies suggest that more than one painter carried out this work, which is credible from a formal, technical and even historical point of view. At this time, Cristovão de Figueiredo completed a monumental retable for the high altar of the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz of which the Museum holds the ‘Discovery of the Holy Cross’, the ‘Miracle of the Resurrection of the Young Man’ and the ‘Emperor Heraclius bearing the Holy Cross’ or ‘The Exaltation of the Holy Cross’ ( fig. 7 ). Parts of the group remaining in the church of origin are ‘The Crucifixion’, the ‘Ecce Homo’ and four oval paintings portraying eight Apostles. Other paintings and a large sculptural group, thought to have occupied the central area, are spread amongst different institutions.

From Portuguese production of the second half of the 16th and the 17th century, the Mannerist painting of Coimbra is worthy of mention, permitting the study of local workshops and the comparison with their contemporaries in Lisbon. The works of Bernardo Manuel ( fig. 11 ), Álvaro Nogueira and Belchior da Fonseca, from 1560 – 1590, well illustrate Coimbra Mannerism.

In addition to these works the collection also includes many paintings on wood and canvas of a lesser quality. It is difficult to attribute authors or exact dates to these due to the repetition of models and the collective character of the production.

In part, the models for these paintings are to be found in works by Simão Rodrigues and Domingos Vieira Serrão for the new colleges, calling upon on local artists to collaborate and who, in turn, imitated and divulged them.

Belonging to the Museum’s collection are a group of ten panels executed by these two partners for the Cathedral sacristy ( fig. 12 ), as well as the retable paintings on canvas commissioned for the new Mosterio de Santa Ana ( fig. 13 ).

Although adopting the principals of the Counter-Reformation – as in the series of christological iconography in the Cathedral – the Santa Ana paintings illustrate themes relating to the cult of the Virgin Mary, thus opening the way to the following stage in Portuguese painting, clearly expressed in the works of Manuel Henriques, SJ ( fig. 14 ) and Josefa d’Óbidos ( fig. 15 ). The works of the first painter clearly express the thematic of the missions and the capacity to attain divine status through martyrdom; in the second, Mary Magdalene gives the greatest proof of this doctrine. Both achieve a contrast between light and dark, increasingly intense in Proto-Baroque painting. Bento Coelho da Silveira is the artist from this period best represented, having almost twenty works in the collection ( fig. 16 ). The Museum possesses thirteen paintings belonging to the complete iconographic programme for the decoration of the Chapel of the Patients of the Colégio de Jesus, which, in 1660 gave him some fame through a poem – the ‘Eulogy’, by the Academia dos Singulares.

In spite of the large quantity of works from the 18th century, the Museum is not at all rich in Baroque painting. The works consist mainly of ecclesiastical portraits, paintings from choir stalls and small retables that are of a poor quality and in a bad state of conservation. Nevertheless, some names still deserve mention, such as André Gonçalves ( fig. 17 ), Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho and Pasqualle Parente.