Altarpiece of Nossa Senhora da Vida

Marçal de Matos (attrib.)1580

National Azulejo Museum

National Azulejo Museum
Lisbon, Portugal

The panel known as "Nossa Senhora da Vida" (Our Lady of Life) is one of the most important pieces in the collection of the National Azulejo Museum and one of the key pieces of 16th century Portuguese production. It was originally applied in the Church of Santo André in Lisbon which was partially destroyed by the 1755 earthquake and then demolished in 1845. The panel is painted in trompe l’oeil, employs a wide range of tones, and is considered one of the richest to be found in azulejo production of the time. It simulates a three-part altarpiece composition painted on a surface of 1.498 azulejos, presenting in the centre a painting with the "Adoration of the Shepherds". It attempts to imitate a painted board with a fine giltwood carved frame. In the background, a misty representation of Bethlehem provides perspective. Four columns flank the two niches containing images of the Evangelists Saint John and Saint Luke, depicted as sculptures. Crowning the whole is a simulation of part of a tondo or medallion evoking Italian ceramics of the Della Robbias. Inside is the scene of the "Annunciation" directly inspired on an engraving by Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio (c. 1505-1565) made from a painting by Titian now no longer extant. The authorship of this retable has been attributed to Marçal de Matos, an azulejo painter who was active at the time, whose work is unknown, but who may be related to another contemporary artist, Francisco de Matos, who was responsible for the remarkable set in the chapel of São Roque, signed and dated 1584, in the church of the same name in Lisbon. Observing this panel one can understand one of the identitary aspects of Portuguese azulejos, which is how they are directly related to the space where they were applied. The fact is that the space, currently empty, in the centre of the panel corresponded in the Church of Santo André to a window. As the light came in through that window it would have symbolically underlined the route taken by the Dove of the Holy Spirit to reach Mary. This concept of associating architecture to the message intended to be conveyed is one of the central aspects of Portuguese production, one that sets it apart from azulejo production elsewhere. This panel’s catechist function, with the powerful expression conveyed by the composition’s monumentality and setting, is also paradigmatic of Portuguese azulejos as an art intended to integrally cover and have the capacity to transform architectural structures.


  • Title: Altarpiece of Nossa Senhora da Vida
  • Creator: Marçal de Matos (attrib.)
  • Date Created: 1580
  • Physical Location: MNAz, Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Lisbon, Portugal
  • Physical Dimensions: 500 cm x 471.5 cm
  • Provenance: Capela de Nossa Senhora da Vida, Igreja de Santo André, Lisbon
  • Medium: Polychrome faience

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