by Roderick Conway Morris

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Revisiting Portugal's Gothic Age

By Roderick Conway Morris
RIMINI, Italy 20 May 2000
Mounted Knight by Master Pero at Oliveira do Hospital, Coimbra, first half of the 14th century



By the time St. Bernard died in 1153, he had founded more than 70 monasteries. The last was the Abbey of Alcobaca, which Alfonso, the first king of Portugal, had invited him to send monks to establish.

Endowed by the king with ample estates, Alcobaca was in many ways a far cry from the wild and desolate valley where as a young man St. Bernard, after leaving the Cistercian mother-house at Citeaux with 12 followers, had founded Clairvaux, the first abbey of his own. But in other respects Portugal, in the far west of the then-known world, having only just emerged as an independent state with the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors, was much more remote than any part of rural France.

It was the Cistercians who brought Gothic art and architecture to Portugal - Alcobaca was closely modeled on Citeaux - and the subsequent centuries that saw the full flowering of the Portuguese Gothic are the subject of 'On the Edge of the World: Sculpture and Art in Portugal, 1300-1500.' This is the third of a series of excellent exhibitions exploring lesser-known areas of ancient and medieval art at the Palazzo del Podesta, where the present show runs until Sept. 3.

At the beginning of the period covered, this new kingdom was hemmed in by the Spanish kingdoms to the north and west and the Moors to the south, often engaged in wars with its neighbors, and direct Portuguese contacts with the wider world were limited. By the end of it, the great Portuguese maritime adventure was under way, Vasco da Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached India, Pedralvares Cabral had landed in Brazil, and Portugal was on the threshold of an era when its art would be transformed again by the European Renaissance and more exotic influences from further afield.

In the early years of its existence, Portugal's proximity to Santiago de Compostela, and the pilgrim routes from the west that converged there, was an important factor in bringing first French Romanesque, and later Gothic, art and artists to the country.

After the initial introduction of the Gothic by the country-dwelling Cistercians, the Dominicans and Franciscans were responsible for its wider diffusion in Portugal's urban centers. In keeping with their austere philosophies, the churches built by these mendicant orders were at first of the utmost simplicity and almost completely devoid of decoration.

However, as the carving of architectural features such as capitols and portals became more elaborate, figurative sculpture gained a foothold. Many of the early sculptors were French, but in time workshops grew up that also brought in local artists and craftsmen. It is the production of these workshops that make up the bulk of the nearly 140 pieces in the show. Many of these sculptures retain much, or nearly all, of the colors with which they were originally painted, suggesting how brightly they must have stood out in their almost monochrome architectural settings.

Royal patronage played a major role in encouraging more elaborate sculptural sequences and the gilding and richly colored patterning of sculpted figures' robes. Royal and aristocratic demand also fostered grander funerary monuments. A landmark in this development were the tombs at Alcobaca, carved around 1360, of the tragic lovers Prince Pedro and Donna Ines de Castro, the latter of whom was murdered on the orders of Pedro's father, Alfonso IV.

One of the show's most striking pieces is, indeed, another funerary sculpture, of a mounted knight from the tomb of Domingo Joanes and his wife in Coimbra. At first glance it seems somewhat simplified and stylized, but this conceals an astonishing underlying tautness and observation of detail, such as the curve of the rider's feet gripping the stirrups and his poised, relaxed, single-handed grip on the reins. The whole composition has a sense of imminent movement, as though man and horse are pausing momentarily, before thundering forward to attack the enemy.

In contrast to this warlike image of the chivalric ideal in action, other sculptures are infused with touching pathos, such as a life-sized study of the dead Christ stretched out on the Tomb, from Coimbra, and serene spirituality, as manifested by a marvelously fluently carved 15th-century Virgin kneeling at prayer, from Evora.

An idiosyncratic Portuguese phenomenon are sculptures of the Virgin that show her heavily pregnant before the birth of Christ, which were inspired by Psalm 40, sung during Advent, 'Expectans expectavi Dominum' (I waited patiently for the Lord). These statues were particularly the focus of devotion by expectant mothers. The folksy realism of these sculptures - represented here by one from the mid-14th century with a naturalistic backward-leaning pose and with the Virgin's hand resting lightly on her swollen belly (implicitly inviting the worshiper to do the same) - later came to be condemned by the church authorities as indecorous and they were removed from public view.

The final part of the exhibition illustrates the arrival during Portugal's age of discovery of new foreign influences, including Flemish painting and tapestry, and Italian Renaissance sculpture, as the country's comparative isolation came to an end.

We can only be grateful that, despite the radical changes in taste that this brought, so much of freshness, charm and interest has been preserved from Portugal's Gothic centuries.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023