Manuel Brioso Office, Coimbrac. 1780

Grão Vasco National Museum

Grão Vasco National Museum

A bishop’s reliquary made of polychrome and enamelled faience. The figure is the representation, in bust form, of a bishop saint, wearing a mitre trimmed and decorated with green plant motifs, outlined in manganese. He has a white face, with incised eyes, brown eyebrows, a prominent nose and a bifurcated beard, marked with tones of brown. The bishop is wearing a chasuble, with a blue collar, with floral motifs placed on a blue wash background. The figure displays an elliptical receptacle, edged with blue volutes, intended for the placement of the relic. The back of the piece does not present any decoration, consisting only of white enamel. The reliquary stands on a rectangular base decorated with blue fillets of various shades.
For the making of reliquaries, preference was given in most cases to supports made of precious metals, such as gold and silver, or richly gilded and polychromed carved woods, which were often incorporated into the structure of retables. Sometimes, however, poorer materials were used, such as clay and terracotta, due to their enormous malleability and the consequent ease of their manipulation. Such pieces were used, in particular, in churches, chapels, oratories and sacristies of monastic communities, as, for example, at the Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria de Alcobaça, where there was a flourishing and extremely important tradition of producing clay figures; as well as in various minor friaries. In this way, they were able to overcome the ban on the use of precious metals.
The reliquaries made of glazed and baked, polychrome faience, which were certainly produced with the use of moulds and then further refined before being fired, are the rarest of all of the different material typologies, and they must have been destined more for use in private oratories or sacristies and less so in public spaces.
The production of glazed polychrome clay sculptures, in which religious sculptures are also included, seems to have been influenced by the Italian majolicas, above all by works such as those produced by Andrea della Robbia, which were welcomed in Portugal with a great deal of fondness.
In Lisbon, in the first quarter of the 17th century, there were various workshops that produced glazed decorative tiles and utilitarian pottery for everyday use, and which also had the capacity to produce glazed polychrome clay figures, although the manufacture of such pieces was, however, fairly rare.
Nonetheless, given the morphological characteristics of the piece, the type of glaze and pigments that were used, and its decorative elements, this reliquary points to its having been made at the workshop of the Brioso family, from Coimbra, whose activity spread over a period of roughly 100 years, beginning in the late 17th century and continuing throughout the 18th century.
Through its comparison with a similar figure belonging to the collection of the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, it would seem that this particular piece must belong to a period when Manuel da Costa Brioso was active, so that it can be dated as being from the 1770s or 1780s. Its attribution to the date of roughly 1780 is due to the fact that it was more or less in this year that there was a notable improvement in the quality of the pieces produced by that family workshop.
It should further be noted that, due to its great prestige, the Brioso Workshop was involved in the foundation in Coimbra, in 1784, of the Fábrica de Santa Clara, with which Domingos Vandelli, a scientist and professor from the University of Coimbra, was associated.
As far as the evocation of the subject represented here is concerned, as there are no iconographic attributes or legends inscribed on the piece, it is impossible to ascertain who exactly is the saint-bishop that is being evoked here.

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  • Title: Reliquary
  • Creator: Manuel Brioso Office, Coimbra
  • Date Created: c. 1780
  • Location: Grâo Vasco Nacional Museum, Viseu, Portugal
  • Physical Dimensions: 31 cm x 17.5 cm x 10 cm
  • Type: Ceramics
  • Rights: © DGPC/ADF/Photographers:Paulo Cintra/Laura Castro Caldas, 1999
  • Medium: Portuguese faience, Polychrome and enamelled in white