Rediscovered in 1883, in the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, in Lisbon, the panels were only put on display for the public after being restored, in 1910.
José de Figueiredo - who would become the first director of the MNAA - National Museum of Ancient Art - identified the central figure in the two larger panels as Saint Vincent and linked the paintings to the old retable from the Chapel of Saint Vincent of the Lisbon Cathedral, painted circa 1470 by Nuno Gonçalves, knight and court painter to the Royal House of D. Afonso V.
The six panels are named to this day in accordance with the designations proposed by José de Figueiredo, from left to right:
Panel of the Friars (207.2 cm x 64.2 cm / 81.6 in x 25.3 in),
Panel of the Fishermen (207 cm x 60 cm / 81.5 in x 23.6 in),
Panel of the Infante (206.4 cm x 128 cm / 81.3 in x 50.4 in),
Panel of the Archbishop (206 cm x 128.3 cm / 81.1 in x 50.5 in),
Panel of the Knights (206.6 cm x 60.4 cm / 81.3 in x 23.8 in)
Panel of the Relic (206.5 cm x 63.1 cm / 81.3 in x 24.1 in).
This monumental assembly (a group of 58 figures, gathered around the double figuration of St. Vincent) is understood to be a representation of the Portuguese court and of several social groups of the 15th century, evoking some important accomplishments in the Portuguese expansion into Northern Africa, during the Avis Dynasty (Portugal’s second dynasty, 1385-1580).
Although the panels still arouse debate amongst the experts, on virtually every issue related to their study, the set of 60 characters is recognized as one of the most singular and impressive collective portraits in European Renaissance.
Friars and monks from different religious orders are represented in the two panels on the left of the polyptych. It has been debated whether the monks in white were Cistercians, an order of enormous national importance, or Augustinians, linked to the cult of St. Vincent through the Lisbon Monastery of São Vicente de Fora.
Two of them, oddly, are wearing civilian caps, and one of them has a long beard (in the Panels, only two religious figures and a knight have beards). He may be, in this case, a barbati - a friar that had taken a vow of obedience, but did not live in enclosure nor wear a scapular.
One of the strongest human representations in the Panels is certainly this elderly bald Franciscan in a long white beard, prostrated, with his knees and elbows on the ground, his hands joined and a rosary wrapped around them.
Individual practices of devotion grew during the late Middle Ages, and would sometimes assume formulas of intense mortification. The rosary – the repetition of 150 Hail-Marys, intermitted with Our-Fathers in a meditative recitation on the Joyous, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Life of the Virgin - was prayed in a kneeling position, as seen with the friar and the woman in the central panel.
The central figure, Saint Vincent, appears in the two larger panels. The duplicate figure is wearing a dalmatic, indicating that a deacon is represented.
Of the three most important deacon saints - Saint Lawrence, Saint Stephen and Saint Vincent -, only the latter is deeply linked to the History of Portugal and of Lisbon: The rescue of his relics was a remarkable accomplishment of D. Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. The Saint became the patron of the Portuguese capital, and was worshiped in the city’s cathedral.
In the 15th century he also became the patron of overseas conquers, and the altar of the chapel where his tomb was located was renewed circa 1470. It is therefore likely that the panels were produced for that altar.
The figure of the elderly man, wearing a Burgundian hat, was the first to be identified in the panels by art critic and historian Joaquim de Vasconcelos, in 1895.
Such discovery was possible due to the similarities between this face and the portrait of Henry the Navigator, son of D.João I, found in the Chronicles of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea (Crónica da Conquista da Guiné) by Gomes Eanes de Azurara, a 15th century manuscript, currently held in the National Library of France.
The identification of this figure contributed to the understanding of the polyptych as a tribute to the patron of Lisbon from the Portuguese royal family.
The archbishop is a portrait of great dignity, revealing the ability of painter Nuno Gonçalves to portray the human figure in rich attire, accessories and jewellery.
The presence of the archbishop in the ceremony, accompanied by several canons, is yet another indicator leading to the identification of the main figure as Saint Vincent, the patron of Lisbon. The objective identification can vary with the dating of the painting. If prior to 1464, the archbishop might be D. Alvaro Nogueira, a man close to king D. Afonso V, from the Order of the Lóios, represented in a different panel. If the painting is of a later date, then it could be cardinal D. Jorge da Costa, an influential character in Portuguese politics and in the Papal Court.
According to a 17th century description, the coat of arms of cardinal D. Jorge da Costa adorned the altarpiece.
In the St Vincent’s Chapel of the Lisbon Cathedral, the retable was probably displayed around the tomb where Saint Vincent relics were deposited.
In this panel, the foremost figure is a man draped in red, a colour worn by the city’s councillors.
The bone emphatically displayed over a green drape is a skull fragment, most likely a representation of a bodily relic of the Saint, in the same composition where his casket is presented.
Some authors have identified this detail as the relic of Saint Anthony of Lisbon (or Padua), presented in 1428 by the Signoria of Venice to Prince Peter (Infante D. Pedro), the brother of Prince Harry.
But, as with many other aspects regarding the panels, the doubt persists: Why display a bone relic of St. Anthony in an adoration of St. Vincent?
In the panel where a figure holds a relic, another one displays a large book, where strange characters are inscribed. According to some experts, it may be a mozarab chronicle of the life of St. Vincent. In the opinion of others, a hebrew text.
The latter hypothesis is usually justified with the possible presence, in the garments of this figure, of a six-point star, made mandatory in the garments of Jews, when appearing in public, during the Alphonsine Ordinances. The symbol does not, however, display the traditional design of the Star of David, and the presence of a Jew in the adoration of a christian saint would not be likely. It could be an important figure, such as a rabbi, but, in that case, the essential feature of the beard would have been added. After several inconclusive studies, the possibility was raised that the text might consist of a simulacrum of a non-latin language writing. The book and its bearer remain therefore a mystery.
Panels of St. Vincent by Nuno GonçalvesMNAA National Museum of Ancient Art
Texts: MNAA/Joaquim Oliveira Caetano