The painting nucleus, though too fragmentary to permit an itinerary through time and an historical follow-up of a visual culture, constitutes an important and diversified amount of images that display some essential aspects of the sensibility and the creative process in painting, particularly in the period between the beginning of the 16th and the end of the 18th centuries.
Besides the episodic presence of outstanding Portuguese masters, such as Vasco Femandes (the famous Grão Vasco), André Reinoso and Pedro Alexandrino, the collection includes some paintings that testify the existence of local painters and painting workshops, as it seems to be the case of Gonçalo Guedes, and a great number of works from abroad, with particular incidence of flemish and dutch works.
The beginning of this heterogeneous museum nucleus has its source in the collection of the old Episcopal Palace, enlarged with several works come from the See, from Santa Casa da Misericórdia, from churches, Monasteries and other local institutions. While that first collection, mainly composed by foreign painting probably acquired along the 19th century, reflects the spirit and taste of a collector, these latter specimens are a valuable testimony of important local patronage structures and other encouragement’s, having been in the origin of successive commissions to painters with more or less notoriety in the Portuguese artistic panorama.
In a chronological point of view, the earliest testimony and undoubtedly the most remarkable one in this itinerary, is the SERIES OF FIVE PANELS that once belonged to the ancient retable of the main-chapel of this city’s See, commissioned to the Viseu – born painter, Vacs Fernandes, by the bishop D. João Camelo de Madureira, in 1506.
From a large amount of explicit documents (Correia, 1924) it is possible to know what position these panels- The Creation of the Animals, The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Circumcision and The Presentation to the Temple - occupied in the original retable, restored in 1656 and perhaps already out of its original place in the 18th century, and whose gilded wood-carving structure included twenty paintings on the whole. In fact, on three horizontal registers, eighteen panels lined up and flanked the central structure of the retable, which was formed by two bigger ones and a polychromatic sculpture depicting the Tree of Jessé. So, on the upper register and following a sequence of five disappeared panels, that depicted Creation themes according to the Genesis version, there was THE CREATION OF THE ANIMALS. of the series of six panels that formed the register in the middle and that depicted a sequence of themes about Adam and Eve, no work has remained, while the lower register included The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Circumcision and The Presentation to the Temple, as well as the disappeared panels that represented The Nativity and The Adoration of the Magi.
In view of the remaining panels, it’s easy to conceive the masterful quality of this grandiose retable which Vacs Fernandes finished in 1511. To its ornamental impact, certainly enhanced by its complex golden wood-carving structure, locally made by two flemish wood carvers, we must add the fundamental pedagogic function of the images, that being lined up in a narrative sequence, they gave visual expression to some “stories” from both the old and the New Testaments.
The realism of the figures and the scenery, the illusion of reality, provided by the painter’s mimetic attitude towards the sensitive world, contributed at the time, to ensures the painter’s success, and to justify the patrons, financing who usually had themselves, either by their pictures or their heraldic symbols, or by both in the present case, represented in the paintings or in the wood-carved structure of the retables.
This series, in spite of the too evident damages in The Presentation to the Temple, is essential to typify Vacs Fernandes’s creative process, in a rather initial phase of his long artistic career, since he died in 1542. In spite of his very personal style, there’s a very intimate relationship between his work and the esthetic and iconography universe of the dutch painting, as though happened with other Portuguese masters and workshops in that period (Rodrigues, 1992, 1995).
In the conception of the figures, wrapped in highly refined clothing width edgy pleats of rare plasticity, in the space organisation of the compositions, with a masterly use of light to enhance intermediate plans (The Annunciation and The Circumcision), in the balanced use of colour, he reveals an essential concern about formal harmony and likeness in representation. The flemish style realism can be identified in his particular vision of forms, in the way how tissues are represented, in the transparency of glass or in the reflects of metal... He depicts minutely his open air scenaries and with remarkable sense of deepness, even far away horizons become scenic backgrounds of extraordinary beauty (The Creation of the Animals).
The objects represented in these paintings, as well as their background landscapes, appearing here just as mere accessories in biblical themes, would win later an autonomous value, in new kinds of painting, such as the still-life and the landscaping. Nevertheless and also according to the dutch painting tradition, these objects and representations, seemingly profane and of merely decorative value, have a symbolic meaning that needs decoding.
Therefore, let’s mention among others, the objects and figures in The Annunciation, the presence of the mythical unicorn in the scenery of The Creation of the Animals or the miniatural scene depicted in a little retable, on the background of the main action of The Circumcision, being yet important to remark and on the foreground, the portrait of D. João Camelo de Madureira, the maecenas bishop, to whom is given the honour of holding Little Jesus.
The representation of this iconography is not arbitrary, being there a complex relationship between the space and the narrative time. So, and as an example, on the background of THE ANNUNCIATION panel, the artist depicts some figures and scenes from the Old Testament that point, symbolically, to the theme represented on the foreground. over the window, three little grizzled painted registers where we can positively identify among some others, the prophet Ezequiel and the Warrior Gedeão with the probatory Fleece, which are prefigurements of The Annunciation. Encircled in a medallion we see Eve, the sinner woman, who points with her right hand to the Virgin, the redeeming woman. The Eternal Father, who like Eve appeared represented in several panels of the upper registers of the original retable, and whose example is The Creation of the Animals, is here represented in a little picture hung on the back wall. As we may easily see, the ideological speech doesn’t exhausts itself in this hints and connections, since the discreet presence of some other details, namely the yam and the thimble represented on foreground, alludes to the Virgin’s tasks at the moment she was surprised by the angel, while a vase with easter-lillies is the symbol of her chastity. The candle just put out and yet smoking, may be a hint of the presence of the divine light, through the Dove of the Holy Spirit.
Other examples, still in the chronological horizon of the 16th century, show some assimilation of the typical values of Mannerism, either in the more expressive character of the forms, or in the chromatic and Iuminaristic changes related to it. while in the St. John Evangelist’s panel, from flemish origin, those values are still incipient, on the table that represents PIETA, proceeding from the Lamego See, it’s evident a full assimilation, although in the clear scope of periphery. in fact, it is a testimony of provincial painting, that in spite of taking as reference the typical figurative painting model of the first half of the 16th century, shows the recourse to a palette of cold tones and to expressive pictorial simplifications. Though putting all the emphasis on the foreground, and trying hard to avoid any disarticulation over the Christ’s figure, the painter doesn’t give up making use of a large figurative background of country scenery, where he represents the preparation of the tomb for the Deposition.
In this same line, although with different expressive resources, is the great panel that represents the CALVARY with donor, attributed to the painter Gonçalo Guedes, who lived in the town from 1589 to 1594 (Correia, 1923), proceeding from the Monastery of Chagas. Unfortunately, in an uncertain date but most likely in the eighteenth century, judging by the character of the repainting and of its frame, this grand panel was almost entirely remade. on the upper section there is a cutting and an addition to the support that affected the painting of part of the cross and the Christ’s arms, while on the lower one, Madalena’s and the donor’s figures were reduced to the level of the bust. The repainting, very roughly made, particularly the restoring of the causation as we can see on Madalena’s profile, hide the original process and give the panel a more recent look. Curious is the peculiarity of representing, under the protecting Virgin’s hand and in a vigorous portrait that partially escaped the repainting, D. António Teles de Menezes, who ruled over the Lamego diocese until his death, in 1598. An individual portrait of the same personality, attributed also to Gonçalo Guedes, which belonged to the same Monastery and is today in the collection of Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Lamego, shows clear affinity of procedures and a very remarkable level (Serrão, 1995).
Interesting is a Virgin with the, Child, in an italian-like pictorial language, nine panels of very small dimensions that in a miniature style of remarkable realism, full of suggestive chiaroscuro effects, depict a series of saints and a Saint Anne with the Virgin, proceeding from the collection of the ancient Episcopal Palace.
Combining dramatic effects of light and shadow, the two tables depicting two scenes from the Passion, Christ tied to the column and Christ with the green cane, proceeding from the Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Lamego, suggest already, though in an incipient way, the emergence of innovator pictorial currents and of different expressive manners, before the exhaustion of the mannerist formularies.
The so-called “naturalist - tenebrist” style, which combines a vigorous naturalism with light effects of intense dramatic quality - started in Italy, especially after the contribution of Caravaggio and with great receptivity in Spain - will have expression in the proto-baroque Portuguese painting, after the second decenium of the 17th century. It’s in this context that we can insert the work of André Reinoso (act. 1610-1641), a painter who adopted, in the words of Félix da Costa Meesen, a very naturalistic style (“estilo muy naturalista”), betraying some contact with the Spanish painting of the “Siglo d’Or” (Golden century). Besides a group of four tables featuring a predella and considered prior to 1620, two other canvas, damaged by repainting, are precisely attributed to this painter and they depict, respectively, S. Vicente and S. Sebastião, proceeding all of them from the Lamego See (Serrão, 1988). A little panel, very correctly designed, depicting THE SACRED FAMILY and proceeding from the ancient collection of the Episcopal Palace, repeats the same figures and types of the series that the painter executed for the S. Roque’s Church, in Lisbon.
In two of the four tables, precisely those that depict S. Francisco and S. Bento and S. Domingos and Santo António, as well as in the two canvas, especially in S. Vicente’s portrait, the typical Reinoso’s methods can be identified, either by the position of the heads and the direction of the eyes, or by the accuracy of the design and the naturalism of the modelling.
It’s with the grandiose VISITATION, executed by the painter Pedro Alexandrino (Lisbon, 1730-1810) , and proceeding from the Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Lamego, that ends the chronological itinerary of this museum around Portuguese painting. This very laborious Lisbon - born painter had a diversified activity through several technical modes, as he easily painted ,a “óleo, a têmpera, a fresco; em grande, e em pequeno, por estampas, pelo natural, e de prática” (with oil, tempera, fresco; in large and small, from prints, from nature and from practice), and several kinds of painting. Is recognised swift imagination and great conceiving skin, to which largely contributed his recurrent use of prints and his acceptance of all land of commissions, is in the origin of the depreciative italian nickname that was given to him, “Fa presto”, and the huge volume of his works that have subsisted (Pamplona, 1957).
In this altar’s painting from Pedro Alexandrino, that stylistically continues his liking for the italian baroque, a certain sense for spectacle is clearly evident, either in the monumentality of the figures, or in their theatrical postures and gestures. In spite of essaying some dynamic form of organising the space, he can’t help in the upper section of the painting, the overlapping and the simplification of the forms, betraying also an incipient handling of the light.
Meant to accomplish important purposes, both in public and private spaces, the painting we have already visited, though using different formal discourses for reasons related to the collection’s origin and the provenance of the works, is exclusively based upon religious themes. However, this forcefully limited vision will perhaps find some compensation when facing other paintings with different formal and ideological themes. The portrait, the still-life and the landscape, this one subdivided in country and marine scenes, testify the coexistence of distinct conceptions and pictorial practices in the chronological space already summarily perused, and now geographically extended to Flanders, the Netherlands and, eventually, to France.
THE STILL-LIFE, that means above all, the triumph of the autonomy for objects and things, constitutes a consummated kind of painting in the 17th century, greatly prized for the public and cultivated by all painters throughout Europe. The dutch word for it, “stilleven”, means “lifeless model”, or “still nature”. The most different kind of objects, flowers and fruits, hunting pieces, sweets and candies, among many others, scattered as being abandoned or organised in sophisticated compositions, of mixed referents, are the exclusive theme of a kind of painting that, in spite of the diversity of its representative options and eventual symbolic components, seems essentially centred on the pleasure of the painting act.
A typical feature of the 15th century dutch painting, and of those related to it (see again Vasco Fernandes’s panels), is to represent with accurate realism, spaces and elements that already evoke, although lacking a clearly defined autonomy, the profane pictorial kinds. It is also in the Netherlands and in Flanders of the 17th century, at the time separated already by politico-religious conflicts, that these themes - the portrait, the landscape and the still-life - will be widely developed. While in the Netherlands, following the Reformation movement, a rupture with the iconography tradition occurs, the Flanders win continue politically united with Spain and spiritually with Rome, what explains the presence of two interesting groups in this nucleus - the one that depicts scenes of the Prodigal Son and the series of four paintings on copper, where the religious themes, having resort to figures that betray a stylistic proximity to Rubens, seem to be a pretext to depict some wide and sophisticated landscapes.
The painting itinerary is still extended, with widely justified interest, judging its provincial and eventually cosmopolitan character, to the wood-carving itinerary. Also in the city and in its outskirts, in the nearby localities of S. João de Tarmac, Salzedas e Ferrerim, the presence of very interesting painting nucleus, confirms the importance that this artistic activity, stimulated by a wealthy and learned patronage, has acquired in this region.