Vasco Fernandes, the mythical Grão Vasco, is one of the most fascinating personalities in Portuguese art. On the one hand, the quality of his work and his powerful creative process have afforded him a special status in the context of Renaissance painting; on the other hand, he has remained shrouded for several centuries in an aura of legend, myth and magic.
St. Peter, the former altarpiece from a chapel on the right side of Viseu Cathedral, painted in around 1529, is today the greatest icon of his talent and one of the most remarkable paintings in the whole of the Portuguese pictorial heritage, enjoying an unrivalled international prestige. Painted on an exceptionally large scale, like the other four altarpieces that he produced for the same cathedral space and for the same patron, the famous Dom Miguel da Silva, this image has become a genuine icon for the supremacy of spiritual over temporal power.
The monumentality of the apostle, depicted as sitting on an Italianate pontifical throne, conferring a blessing and with his gaze turned towards an absolute space, results from the successful combination of a series of representative strategies. The way in which the composition is structured is essential for creating this imposing monumentality – the figure is placed in the centre, in a symmetrical scheme, thus defining both the space and the scale that enable the artist to work on the dimension of what is close and tangible. Through two openings, on either side of the throne, he creates the opposite effect: in other words, he represents space in depth and conquers for the image the notion of distance spreading into infinity. Although the extension of the field of vision to the two side landscapes also serves the painting’s narrative requirements, since they are two scenes alluding to the life of the corresponding apostle – on the left The Calling of the Fisherman and on the right "Quo Vadis?" – it is, above all, the achievement of monumentality for the figure in the foreground of the representation, the figuration of a genuinely enthroned Pope, that is at stake here. Fundamental for accentuating this is the absolute autonomy of the figure in relation to the throne, obtained through the extraordinarily sensitive manipulation of the light; an exercise that is unparalleled in all of the other Portuguese paintings of that time.
Entering from the upper right of the picture and sweeping across it, the light acquires different levels of intensity, both highlighting the volumes of the throne and the apostle and giving them a sense of space and autonomy. The casting of the shadow of the figure onto the lower left half of the back of the throne, as well as the beam of light sweeping between the figure and the throne, are essential from this point of view. But the expressive force of this painting of St. Peter is also the result of a skilful and patient work of pictorial elaboration, both in the powerful physiognomic characterisation of the face and in the exuberant forms of the pluvial.
In fact, like the rhythms of the composition, the whole surface of the painting is extraordinarily well programmed and elaborated from an artistic point of view. The decoration of the cape or pluvial in brocade, with extremely delicate ornamental motifs, countless inlaid jewels and painted angels holding the instruments of the Passion, the painstakingly detailed work of the tiara or the rings over the gloved hands, the decorative elements of the tiled floor painted in perspective, all reveal the virtuosity of the artist’s technique. On the upper part of the back of the throne, whose end is not actually depicted, the decorative elements are also perfectly modelled through a range of grey tones, always in keeping with the greater or lesser incidence of light. A remarkably painted symmetrical shell, followed by a moulding of scrolls, occupies the central space, whilst the remaining surface is decorated with highly voluminous swollen plant motifs, repeating, with occasional variants, the decorative features of the two tiaras that give a symmetrical shape to the top of each side. Some of these forms are already manifestly Renaissance in style, such as the shell, whilst others are still "Manueline", such as the swollen plant features, the capitals and bases of the columns or the decorative features of the almost invisible wainscoting on the wall – a plant decoration in the form of a continuous frieze, in the grotto style, consisting of a cup with similar leaves to the ones on the back of the throne, and a bundle of plants from which there sprout four pomegranates. They show that, in terms of the stylistic categorisation that has become established in the History of Art, with Italian painting being seen as the source of the Renaissance, this St. Peter is still a hybrid, eclectic work, marking a transition between one style and another.
More important than this type of classification, which is always necessarily reductive and only relatively useful, is the precise understanding of the reasons that led the painter to centralise his work around the search for effects of a linear and tonal nature. This option resulted in an acutely realistic treatment of the form in the foreground, and also in an opposite effect, namely the loss of definition of the form, until it dissolves into atmospheric effects in the background. And this happened precisely because painting was seen as a representation, because the search for three-dimensionality despite the actual dimensions of the support, in other words the principle of representative verisimilitude through the imitation of nature, was still the central issue for debate at that time and the pivotal point from which the new artistic theories and experiences emerged and upon which they converged.
The predella was exchanged in the course of the last century with the one from the altarpiece of the Baptism of Christ, but it has now been reassembled once again in keeping with its original arrangement. Here, half of the apostles are represented – St. John the Evangelist and St. Andrew; St. Bartholomew and St. Judas Thaddeus; St. Paul and St. James.
Besides the emblematic St. Peter, Dom Miguel da Silva commissioned another four altarpieces, with identical sizes and forms for the cathedral’s various chapels. The theme of the Baptism of Christ was destined for the side chapel on the left, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and therefore placed facing St. Peter. Located in the chapels at the top ends of the transept were the Pentecost, to the north, and the Calvary, to the south, whilst St. Sebastian was destined for a chapel of the cloister, whose construction was also commissioned by the same bishop.
The involvement of Gaspar Vaz in these projects, especially in the Pentecost, the Baptism of Christ and the predellas from the five altarpieces, explains some quite notable differences in terms of quality.