When gold turns into silk…

The Church vestments for the Royal Basilica of Mafra

By Mafra National Palace

Bust of King D. João V (1752) by Alessandro GiustiMafra National Palace

A true "school of arts"

The Royal Work of Mafra was one of King João V's most important projects, where much of the kingdom's wealth converged, namely the important influx of gold from Brazil. The King-Maecenas strived to create a true "school of arts" in Portugal, raising this "royal city" simultaneously to the splendor of the other great European courts.

Basilica’s Main-altar (1730) by João Frederico LudoviceMafra National Palace

King João V commissioned in Italy an important collection of sculpture and painting for the Basilica, also sending Portuguese artists to study in Rome at his expenses. Mafra became, thus, the main diffusion center of Fine Arts of the time.

The retable of the main-altar represents the Virgin, the Child and Saint Anthony, by Francesco Trevisani (c.1730) and, above, a sculpture group depicting Christ on the Cross framed by angels, by Francesco Maria Schiaffino (c.1733).

Holy Family Chapel (1730) by João Frederico LudoviceMafra National Palace

In order to solemnize the ceremonies in the Royal Basilica, modelled after the Papal Rome, the King also commissioned numerous religious implements, including a collection of silk church vestments produced in France and Italy, unique in terms of both quality and quantity of the order.

Memory of the pieces left in the Sacristy of the Royal Convent of S. Antonio de Mafra (1730-09-29) by José Garcia de FigueiredoMafra National Palace

One of the earliest references to these church vestments is a document dated September 29, 1730, a few days before the solemn consecration of the Basilica, held on October 22 of that same year.

In the document, belonging to the Biblioteca Pública de Évora, are listed all the church vestments that were deposited here for use of the Royal Basilica, their color, the classification in more and less solemn days, the typology of the pieces and their provenance, namely Italy (Genoa and Milan) and France. Some arrived in 1730 and were solemnly blessed on the eve of the first day of the Basilica's consecration ceremonies.

Silk embroidered church vestment (detail), Unknown author, 1730, From the collection of: Mafra National Palace
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As they were intended for a Franciscan convent, with a vow of poverty, and by the specific instruction of King João V, the vestments were not to be embroidered with gold but... "with silk, not adorned or tilled, but rather strong and very hard embroidered in gold-colored silk, as close as it can be to the same gold. Be the design of tasteful embroidery, and wrought with all perfection.''

So, from Italy and France came over 1500 pieces embroidered in golden silk, of great quality of execution that can compete with the rich gold embroideries used in the time.

José Maria da Fonseca Évora (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

The responsible for the King’s commissions in Italy was one of the most prestigious figures of Portuguese culture in the reign of King João V, José Maria de Fonseca Évora (1690/1752), a Franciscan friar, the ambassador of Portugal to the Holy See, a collector, Maecenas and, finally, the Bishop of Porto.

Living in Rome from 1712, the year he accompanied the Marquis of Fontes in the famous embassy of the King of Portugal to Pope Clement XI, D. Frei Fonseca Évora became a privileged interlocutor in the process of acquiring works of art for the Portuguese court, especially in the orders destined to the Royal Basilica of Mafra.

Green satin half-embroidered vestment (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

The Italian vestments

From Milan came three sets of satin vestments: the Green Satin Half-Embroidered Vestment Made in Milan to be used in the so-called Common Time, the longest period of the liturgical year: 33-34 weeks distributed between the feast of the Baptism of Jesus and the beginning of Lent and between the Monday after of Pentecost and the beginning of Advent. It consists of 36 pieces, including the clothing for the celebrant and acolytes – chasubles, dalmatics, liturgical cuffs, copes, "grammatae", humeral veils, maniples, stoles, etc. – pieces for the altar and liturgical objects – as altar fronts, canopaeum chalice veils, faldstool cover, missal covers or stand covers for instance – and to "dress" the Basilica – altar canopies, church curtains, pulpit falls, among others.

Cuffs (pair) of the green satin half-embroidered vestment (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

The liturgical cuffs were used by the celebrant to decorate the sleeves of the alb.

Dalmatic of the green satin half-embroidered vestment (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

The dalmatic is used by the deacon over the other vestments during the mass or other solemn celebrations, processions or the blessing of the Holy Sacrament.

Lliturgical cuffs (pair) (1730) by Unkown authorMafra National Palace

The same number and type of pieces (36) compose the purple half-embroidered satin vestment made in Milan adorned with the same type of decoration and embroidery, as can be seen in the pair of liturgical cuffs and in detail in this image. The purple color in liturgy was used in Advent and Lent. It is a symbol of penance and serenity. It was also used, as it can be read in the inventories of the Royal Basilica of Mafra, "to sing the Passion" [of Christ]. Today, it can also be used in the masses of the dead and in penitential services.

Missal cover (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

Purple satin half-embroidered vestment made in Milan (Missal cover and detail).

Grammata of a black satin half-embroidered vestment (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

Also from Milan, came the black half-embroidered satin vestment for the Solemn Masses of the Deceased, used, as the name says, in the masses for dead friars. It includes 31 pieces. This black set was the one which suffered the most over time, as the chemicals used in the tincture to color the satin corrupted the support fabric until it completely disappeared. Just the embroidery, attached directly to the cotton lining, remains.

Chasuble (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

From Italy, in this case Genoa, came two other ensembles: one crimson and one white, perhaps the most sumptuous of the collection.

The crimson embroidered satin vestment made in Genoa for the Most Solemn Days, consists of 30 pieces.

Crimson (red) color is used in the Chrism and Pentecost Masses, to evoke the fire of the Holy Spirit. It can also evoke blood, so it is also used in celebrations in honor of the Martyrs and on Friday of the Passion and Palm Sunday Here, a chasuble called, by its shape, a Roman chasuble. Liturgically, the chasuble is one of the most important pieces, specifically intended to be used by the celebrant during the Eucharist.

Cope of the crimson satin embroidered vestment (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

Cope belonging to the crimson embroidered satin vestment made in Genoa for the Most Solemn Days.

The cope was used by the celebrant in the solemn blessings made at the altar, in the processions, for the solemn prayers of Good Friday, at the Paschal Vigil, Solemn Vespers and Lauds, as well as at the end of the Matins Solemn. It can also be used by an assistant priest in the first masses of new priests (if not concelebrants) and for the celebration of the Sacraments outside the Mass and in the blessing with the Blessed Sacrament.

Cope (back) of a crimson satin embroidered vestment (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

The cope has the shape of a long mantle or cloak, open in front and fastened at the breast with a band or clasp, called a "morse". In the back it has a shield-shaped piece, normally highly decorated, vestige of a primitive hood. It may be of any liturgical color, according to the liturgy.

Grammata (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

The "grammata" is a piece of square format, as the name says, that was placed attached to the alb, at the end of the chasuble. Its use was reserved to Pontifical masses. This piece has felt into disuse.

Panels of St. Vincent (15th century) by Nuno GonçalvesMNAA National Museum of Ancient Art

In the Panels of S. Vincent, belonging to the collection of the National Museum of Ancient Art, the central figure, S. Vincent, exemplifies how the "grammata" was used.

Grammata of a white satin vestment (1730) by Unknown authorMafra National Palace

Also from Genoa arrived, on the same date, the white satin vestment with embroidered orphreys made in Genoa for the Less Solemn Days, composed of 30 pieces.

Liturgically, the white color is used in festive Masses such as Easter, Christmas, the Feasts of Our Lord, the Feasts of Our Lady and the Saints, except for the martyrs. It symbolizes joy, resurrection, victory and purity.

Basilica decorated for a ceremonyMafra National Palace

In addition to the vestments for the celebrant and the altar, King João V’s order also included items designed to "dress" the Basilica and solemnize ceremonies such as blessings and processions: canopies, door curtains, pulpit falls or tabernacle veils.

Pulpit fall of the Crimson Embroidered Satin Ornament, made in Genoa for the Most Solemn Days (1730) by UnkownMafra National Palace

Crimson satin embroidered vestment made in Genoa for the Most Solemn Days (Pulpit fall), c.1729.

The Royal Basilica of Mafra does not have, as it is often the case, a structural pulpit for preaching, but a wooden pulpit that could be removed when necessary. In the solemn festivities, the pulpit was decorated with an embroidered pulpit fall belonging to the same vestment used in the liturgy of the day.

Credits: Story

General Coordination: Mário Pereira

Exhibition Curators: Isabel Yglesias de Oliveira; Mª Fernanda Santos; Mª Gabriela Cordeiro;

Photo Credits: DGPC/ADF/Carlos Vasconcellos e Sá; DGPC/ADF/Thales Leite; DGPC/PNM; Sérgio de Medeiros

Credits: All media
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