Triptych of the Passion of Christ | 1514-1517 | MNMC 2518;2519;11267

Commissioned by D. Manuel I and executed in Antwerp by Quentin Metsys between 1514 and 1517 for the Convento de Santa Clara, this triptych still preserves its lateral wings. When the triptych is closed, the viewer would be faced with the ‘Annunciation’ – the first cycle of the life of Christ on earth – en grisaille, in tones of grey, pink and white. The interior portrays the scenes that bring that moment to its conclusion: in the centre is the ‘Crucifixion’, whilst the wings portray the humiliation inflicted by the Romans (‘The Flagellation’) and by the Jews (‘Ecce Homo’). The themes and dimensions of the figures and the position of the head and hands of the Virgin, preserved in a fragment, seem to permit a possible reconstitution of the ‘Crucifixion’

In 1931, the art historian, J. de Figueiredo recognised that the small oval frame portraying the ‘Grieving Virgin’, was a fragment of the central panel.

The rudimentary colours and brushstrokes of the retouching work, most obvious on the left wrist, show that the work referred to in writing on the back of the piece as being the ex-voto of the abbess, was no more than a re-use of part of the triptych which had been ruined in a disaster such as a flood or a fire. On the left wing, the disfigured faces of the torturers, common in works by Metsys from this period, recall the caricatures of Leonardo da Vinci, with whom he had had contact. On the right wing the foreground, depicting the Pharisees with Jesus just behind them in the second plane, create an effect of expressive intensity reinforced by the representation of Antwerp Cathedral on the left that frames the entire scene.

By observing this piece, we can understand why, in the 16th century, the Portuguese preferred the dramatic, yet equally beautiful Flemish painting, as related by Francisco de Hollanda.

The Lamentation| 16th cent. | MNMC 4085

João de Ruão, a Norman sculptor, executed this composition during the first phase of his work and is considered to be one of his masterpieces. It portrays St. John and the Holy Women dressed in 16th century period clothing. The slight contortion of their bodies suggests a certain discretion in their movements.
The representation of the garments shows an impressive subtlety and accuracy of detail. So great was the impact of this composition that it encouraged other workshops to reproduce the same theme, although with slight variations.

Reliquary | 14th cent., 1st half | MNMC 6036

This reliquary combines the excellent qualities of several materials. The tormented form of the coral appears to be intertwined with its prophylactic powers and its symbology of longevity. The silver explores the ingenious techniques of the goldsmiths, combining gilt-work with the repeated use of enamels. The reliquary of the Holy Cross, apart from its value as a heraldic symbol, conveys a codified vision of the arts. It is supported by two figures of lions, mighty guardians of the relic’s fragility, on which rests a saltire, the cross of St. Andrew, a symbol of humility. The use of the two lions is associated with the concept of strength, grandeur and courage and the belief that this animal is born dead and awakened to life after three days by the breath of its father. The lion was therefore identified with the figure of the crucified Christ. It was also believed that lions slept with their eyes wide open, making them guarantors of vigilance and guardians of the sacred.

Medieval knight | 14th cent. | MNMC 704

This knight, buried in the Ferreiros Chapel (Oliveira do Hospital), depicts Domingos Joanes as proven by his military accoutrements – helmet, chain-mail, sword, pointed footwear with spurs, and his heraldic device emblazoned on the shield which he bears (azure, a saltire argent between four fleur-de-lis or).

The exaltation of military values within a funerary context, giving the knight a religious dimension, is characteristic of medieval spirituality. This sculpture was recently attributed to Master Pero.

Reliquary | 14th cent. | MNMC 6034

This reliquary portraying Our Lady and Child is exceptional in collections of Portuguese medieval metalwork where large figurative sculptures are rarely to be found. In this representation, the feminine fashion is portrayed, and some tenderness in the facial expression is already revealed. By addressing the human condition this image conveys a greater empathy with the faithful. As medieval jewellery is extremely rare, this sculpture also serves as an important document.

Isabel of Aragão, Queen of Portugal, founded the first centres for private assistance in the country. Under her initiative these centres assisted the sick, the old, orphans, the abandoned and prostitutes. She financed hospitals, convents, shelters, colonies for lepers, orphanages and reform homes, always making sure to participate in tasks to help the needy. Thus, it was this queen who created the concept of the charitable institution, although it was only at the end of the 15th century that the Queen, D. Leonor institutionalized these centres.

Queen Isabel left to her Coimbra convent a number of her personal valuables that constitute one of the most important groups belonging to the Museum collection. In accordance with common practice of the period, the coat of arms of Portugal and Aragon is displayed on every piece, apart from the necklace (see p. 88), identifying her as the owner. This small treasure of sacred medieval precious metalwork (figs 4 – 6) comprises a personal jewel – a necklace – which, due to its symbolic value alone, was soon regarded as an authentic relic. According to legend, the Clarissa nuns would lend the necklace to the sick to help in a cure, being favoured particularly by women in childbirth. As a sign of appreciation and gratitude to the Holy Queen, those who had benefited from its powers would keep fragments of the necklace as protective relics. This is a possible explanation as to why the piece is now incomplete.

Chalice | 12th cent. | MNMC 6030

The earliest piece in the collection is a silver gilt chalice offered to the Mosteiro de S. Miguel de Refoios by D. Gueda Mendes. It is a masterpiece of 12th century precious metalwork with its fine proportions, purity of form and richness of iconography. It portrays Christ and the Apostles on the bowl and the symbols of the Evangelists on the foot: the lion of St. Mark; the angel of St. Matthew, the bull of St. Luke and the eagle of St. John. In typical Romanesque style, both the figures and their frames are executed in subtle relief, as are the inscriptions around the rim and base of the foot. This chalice employs a profuse decorative programme, unparalleled in Portugal, in which the figurative representation prevails over geometric or plant motives

Last supper | 1530 – 1534 | MNMC 867-877

The genius of Filipe Hodart is evident in this set of statues portraying The Last Supper, making it one of the most impressive sculptural works of the European Renaissance. The figures, representing Christ and the Apostles in period clothing, were modelled in clay and, although the garments share common elements, each of the personages possesses a strong individuality. Hodart portrayed ordinary people, identified at the time as being people known in the daily life of the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz, for which the work was executed. They were beggars or labourers involved in the repair work on the monastery at the time. The entire group explodes with vivacity, revealing one of the most impetuous personalities of the Portuguese Renaissance. The originality and importance of this group lies in the formal treatment of the figures, making it a work obviously ahead of its time as it foresees Mannerist elements as well as displaying some traits of early Baroque in its dynamism and expressiveness.

The ‘Black’ Christ | 14th cent.| MNMC 10891 >/p>

This powerful piece, portraying a larger than life-size, elongated body of the crucified Christ, has a strong archaic medieval character. The drooped head crowned with thorns from which hang locks of hair, attains a highly dramatic expression. The dark torso showing the accentuated grooves of the ribs, contrasts dramatically with the white loincloth from which dangle His thin and bony legs. The crossed feet are fixed to the crucifix by a single nail – a characteristic of this iconographic style. The elongation of body together with the rhythm that contorts the entire image, combine to convey an already Gothic plastic feel to this piece. Moreover, the dramatic expression of the half-open mouth and the blood dripping along the arms reflect a realistic sentiment associated with work from the Peninsula, although the expression of resignation is rather more Portuguese than Spanish. This rare work of art came from the Oratório das Donas of the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz.

Pietà | 1685 – 1690| MNMC 1969

For a long time this Pietà was attributed to Juan de Juni as it was thought that Spanish art best expressed the profound feelings of this theme; a theme much divulged since the Middle Ages. It now seems evident that the pietà fits perfectly into the trajectory of the Benedictine master Frei Cipriano da Cruz, showing many stylistic similarities with the rest of his wood statuary. This piece, and the following one, originate from the church of the Colégio de S. Bento in Coimbra.

Mermaid Capital l12th cent., 2nd half | MNMC 10454

This capital, rich in iconography, depicts a typical Romanesque theme – the mermaid. Inspired by bestiaries of Oriental origin, this motif symbolized the protective and benevolent aspect of the sea. The piece presents an asymmetric decoration on three sides with a repetition of the theme: a mermaid holding a fish in her right hand and raising her tail in the other. This capital and the following one are from the collegiate church of S. Pedro.