Philosophy Science

The Four Elements of the Universe

The construction of the octagonal tower of the Jesuit University was funded by António Franco, and the edifice was an opportunity for the elaboration of an innovative iconographic program.

The octagonal tower is a hall that serves to connect four corridors of the University buildings. The construction was funded by António Franco, a teacher of Latin and Rhetoric, and the edifice was an opportunity for the elaboration of an innovative project, as the Jesuit teacher could assign an iconographic program without the restrictions that tradition imposed on other areas of the University, such as the great hall, the library or the classrooms.

The works had started in 1726, but the tiles were placed only in the early 1740s and, therefore, probably commissioned after the death of António Franco, deceased in 1732.

The dome, with four large windows, brought a new source of light for this crossing area and inside, on the top, there are four polychromed terracotta angels. In displaying the coat of arms of Archbishop D. Henrique, the Society of Jesus, the Portuguese Royal House and the City of Évora, the angels represent the main institutions responsible for the creation of the University. Beneath, on the walls, tile panels, in blue and white, depict the the four fundamental elements of nature. 

These elements are concepts of Aristotelian Physics, which aims to define the whole process of transformation of the matter. Of course, this idea is also present in the Commentary of the Eight Books of Physics written, in the late sixteenth century, by the Jesuit teacher and philosopher Manuel de Góis, who underlined the presence of a creative driving force as an essential property of natural elements:

It is because the elements can be understood as a certain and definite place in the world, to which they are linked by an innate propensity or a movement of their own. They are also the first bodies subject to generation and corruption, which had given all other sublunar bodies the cause of birth and death.

Angel with Society of Jesus Christogram, c. 1740. © Teresa Verão.

In the tile panels, the essential elements of nature, identified by the titles in the cartouche, are symbolized by gods of classical mythology. The water is personified by Neptune, the god of the sea, the air by Eolo, the keeper of the winds, the fire by the Almighty Jupiter, and the earth by a trio of the deities: Cybele, Ceres, and Bacchus.

To represent the mythological themes, the tile painter freely used a series of Étienne Baudet prints, engraved in 1695, as a model. In turn, the French engraver, a recognized member of the Royal Academy of Paris, reproduced a famous group of paintings by Francesco Albani, which today remains in the Sabauda Gallery in Turin.

Étienne Baudet, Element de l'Air, 1695
Étienne Baudet, Element de l’Air, 1695. © Rijksmuseum.

During the same period, the Lisbon Great Workshop, which brought together the tile painters Nicolau de Freitas, Joaquim de Brito e Silva, Valentim de Almeida, Sebastião de Almeida and José dos Santos Pinheiro, also made the tiles for the Jesuit College of the Santo Antão-o-Novo, in Lisbon.

Like a rhetorical discourse, António Franco’s tower decoration makes use of the figures of personification, allegory and metaphor in a visual language. Enriched by the appeal of classical mythology, the tile panels and the four heraldic angels operate as a metaphor, in such a way that the Archbishop of Évora, the Society of Jesus, the Portuguese Royal House, and the City of Évora are compared and qualified as the natural elements of the creation of the University of Évora.

It is a relatively simple program, but with the peculiarity of presenting itself as a symbolic representation of the Jesuit University of Évora. In its simplicity, using basic concepts of Aristotelian Physics, the set is also a lesson in the best tradition of the Jesuit didactic method.


MANGUCCI, Celso. Universo, Universidade. O enigma dos azulejos da torre octogonal do Colégio Jesuíta de Évora in Biblioteca DigiTile: Azulejaria e Cerâmica on line, coordenação de Susana Varela Flor. Lisboa, ARTIS – Instituto de História da Arte da Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa, Biblioteca de Arte da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian e Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, 2015.

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