Altarpiece of the chancel of Viseu Cathedral (1501-1506) by Vasco Fernandes and Francisco HenriquesGrão Vasco National Museum
The origins of the altarpiece
The former altarpiece from the chancel of Viseu Cathedral, or the fourteen panels that survived their removal from their original place, is a fundamental work for understanding that the painting and the painters from the Southern Netherlands exerted a decisive influence on the tastes of their clients and on the work of Portuguese painters.
Despite the controversy that the question of their authorship has given rise to, everything would lead us to believe that a team led by the Flemish painter Francisco Henriques, which was joined locally by the still quite young Vasco Fernandes (Grão Vasco), painted these panels of the altarpiece between the years 1501 and 1506.
In the various narrative scenes alluding to the two series – the Life of the Virgin and the Childhood of Jesus – as well as in the series of the Passion and Glorification of Christ, not only is it possible to recognise the Northern European origins in the process of representation, but it is also possible to identify models, figures and scenes that were directly inspired upon the pictorial and graphic production of the "Flemish primitives".
As is customary, the scene of the Annunciation takes place in the interior space of a house, filled with the Virgin’s bed and some objects that have an evident narrative and symbolic function, alluding to the moment when the Virgin was surprised by the messenger.
The visual horizon is prolonged through two openings to the outside, one of which enables us to glimpse an architectural background and the figuration of a well (the "well of living water"), which symbolises Mary’s virginity.
This scene almost always takes place outdoors, in front of Elizabeth’s house as she comes out to meet Mary in a composition that displays the traditional triangular structure.
The linear and aerial perspective is used as a correction, making it possible to express the idea of a city, and, with a descriptive detail that runs through and dominates the representation of the city, people and animals are represented, in almost expressionistic lines, in the same way as the elegant figures placed next to the city gates.
The Nativity takes place in an interior space in ruins. Through an opening, in a complex relationship between space and time, there appears a landscape background that serves as the setting for the representation of a secondary theme: the Annunciation to the Shepherds.
The detailed realism, which is clearly due to an evident pedagogical intention behind the painting, is the predominant value in the representation of this theme. The traces of blood on the knife and the towel, or the pointed tip of a bone at the end of St. Joseph’s staff, are details that denote a peculiar feeling, perhaps a certain Southern European sensitivity, and which would therefore be very rarely found in Northern European painting.
Adoration of the Magi
The replacement of the traditional black Magus king, Balthazar, with a Brazilian Indian is the iconographical detail that has most contributed to the popularity of this painted panel.
In fact, this is the first representation of the figure of the Indian in western art, taking place one or two years after the discovery of Brazil.
Added to this is also the fact that the Baby Jesus is holding a gold coin in his left hand, suggesting the age-old desire for wealth that was associated with the Portuguese Discoveries.
Particularly notable in this panel is its rich and detailed iconography. Prominent in the foreground is the female figure, depicted from behind, who is holding a basket with three pigeons in her left hand.
This is an interesting iconography, since, according to the law of Moses, "a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons" were to be offered up in sacrifice.
In the tondo placed on the upper part of the wall at the back, in the centre of the panel, we see a representation of a theme from the Old Testament: the angel holds Abraham’s hand at the moment of Isaac’s Sacrifice.
In the same wall at the back of the temple, allowing us to glimpse an architectural background, is an already Renaissance portico, surmounted by the Portuguese shield.
Flight into Egypt
In the centre of a rigorously triangular composition, and enveloped in a uniform light, we see the figures of the Virgin Mary and the sleeping Child Jesus.
Contrasting with the peacefulness of this representation is the intense luminosity of the angel, who, with a wrinkled face and holding the rope of the donkey and the palm of martyrdom, seems to symbolise and foreshadow the Passion of Christ.
In this panel, Christ and the apostles gather together around a circular table, on which we can see, besides the customary Eucharistic elements (the bread and wine), a dish with a bird, instead of the lamb from the Jewish tradition that is also represented with some frequency.
Despite these technical shortcomings, the lack of any weight and substance in the bodies of the figures, the extraordinary modelling of Judas’ cloak, symbolically represented in an intense yellow colour, is perfectly clear, as is the technical rigour demonstrated in the representation of certain details (the light on the chalice, the wine glasses and their reflection on the white tablecloth), indicating an essential desire for realism.
Prayer in the Garden
In a magnificent composition defined by a rigorous diagonal line, establishing a relationship between the figures, Christ directs his gaze, in an expression of accentuated mysticism, towards the angel holding the instruments of the Passion.
Judas’ imminent betrayal, hinted at in the two preceding panels, the Last Supper and Prayer in the Garden, now becomes the crucial element of the representation of the central theme. Wrapped in his customary yellow cloak and holding the purse of coins, the symbols of his betrayal, Judas puts his arm around Jesus Christ and kisses him on the face.
Descent from the Cross
Placed diagonally, the body of Jesus Christ is removed from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus and St. John the Evangelist. Mary Magdalene, in a state of expressive agitation, watches the action, with her back turned, and with one knee on the ground.
The more expressive faces, especially those of the Virgin and the holy woman, and Mary Magdalene’s agitation, together with the intensity of the colours, give the scene its necessary sense of drama.
Jesus Christ triumphant is represented under the tomb carved out of the rock. The indifference of two soldiers, still asleep, contrasts with the attitude of surprise exhibited by the one on the left. In the background landscape, and linked to the scene in the foreground, is the symbolic light of dawn.
Arranged around a mass of rock, with a number of suggestive forms imprinted upon it, are the witnesses to the scene of Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven, namely the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and the apostles. In order to highlight the ascending movement of Christ’s figure, which is only represented by the lower half of his body, the gazes of the characters are lifted upwards and their expressive verticality is accentuated by various theatrical gestures.
The scene of the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), which can be easily identified through the presence of the hovering dove, takes place here in the interior of a house, at the back of which can be seen a bed and a fireplace.
Arranged around the Virgin, who occupies the centre of the panel, are the twelve apostles, whose surprise is marked through their theatrical gestures and their raised heads and gazes.
Author: Dalila Rodrigues
Edition: Grão Vasco Museum
Translation: John Elliott
Digital production: Luís Ramos Pinto