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It is rare indeed to find in Portuguese azulejos such a graceful feminine figure as this representation of Athena or Minerva, the goddess that in classical antiquity personified wisdom and was the sponsor of arts and military strategy. Composed as if it were a larger than life-size portrait of a figure, the panel refers to one of the expressions of the image of splendour then in vogue in the Baroque period. The imposing frame simulating heavy woodcarving which we can quite easily imagine as being gilded includes three seraphim, in a fusion of elements linked to Catholicism, thus associated to a pagan image of ancient mythology. Within the boundaries of this frame, the goddess observes us from her guardian-like stance, as if she were an "invitation figure", her role as protectress accentuated by the shield with the head of the once beautiful Medusa, who turned to stone anyone who looked into her eyes. Although we do not know where it was to be placed, everything appears to indicate that the panel would have been found in an entrance, possibly in a prominent position, almost as an evocation of Fortitude, a Christian virtue that often resembles this figure. Other sets of panels from this period are known containing large-size characters that also emphasise the illusionist aspect of their representation and placement. These include the eight heroines of the Old Testament (Ruth, Rachel, Esther, Judith, Abigail, …), placed in the windows of the High Choir of the Convent of Madre de Deus, now an integral part of the National Azulejo Museum, and the four panels at the entrance to the Chapel of the Museum of Pólvora Negra in Barcarena, on the outskirts of Lisbon. The latter, which also belong to the collection of the National Azulejo Museum (Inv. 6938 Az) are on deposit at that other museum where they were applied, even though it is not the original space. However, as opposed to the figure of Athena, which is totally surrounded by the frame around her, the images of the saints in Barcarena (Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saints Andrew, Adrian and Anthony) and the biblical women, stand like statues on pedestals but attempt to leave the confinement of their frames. In this way they seek to oppose their static dimension, to enter more directly into contact with the real space and thus try to ensure for themselves that dynamic status of the "invitation figures".

Details

  • Title: Athena or Minerva
  • Date Created: 1725/1750
  • Physical Location: MNAz, Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Lisbon, Portugal
  • Physical Dimensions: 257.5 cm x 144 cm
  • Provenance: Unknown (Comandante Ernesto Vilhena Collection)
  • Medium: Blue on white faience

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