The tiles painted by Gabriel del Barco for the Convent of Nossa Senhora da Assunção are one of the most amazing works of the Spanish painter, a pioneer of blue and white figurative tiles in Portugal.
The massive set of panels commissioned between 1698 and 1700, by the Rector Bernardo de São Jerónimo, must be read as a laudatory history of the Congregation of St. John the Evangelist.
The Arraiolos tiles ensemble, always recognized as one of the main works of Gabriel del Barco, benefited from the spirited atmosphere after the canonization of Lorenzo Giustiniani (1381-1456), the first Patriarch of Venice, in 1690.
When the painter chose the images for the panels tiles, it was required to follow the structure of the chronicle of the Congregation, published by Friar Francisco de Santa Maria, in 1697.
The explanation for the book’s title is key to understand the main idea that must guide the whole ensemble of tiles:
I named this work Ceo Aberto na Terra (Heaven opened on Earth), and with some order and energy because, without controversy, my Congregation is an opened Heaven. Heaven by the color of habit, opened by freedom, which only her sons can to achieve. My holy Evangelist, he saw the Heaven with a door opened: Ecce ostium apertum in Caelo, as a portrait of his and our Congregation, which always has had the door opened, and in it (as in Heaven), no one lives against his will.
To accomplish this goal, on the top of either side of the church walls, the visual discourse displayed a portrait gallery of the virtuous men of the Venetian Congregation of St. George accompanied, in the other side, by the portraits of Portuguese friars of the Congregation of St. John the Evangelist.
Above, in the middle level, the tile panels represent an extensive hagiography of St. Lawrence Justinian, not in his role as the first Patriarch of Venice, but as the true example of the religious qualities of the friars of St. John the Evangelist, best known in Portugal as Lóios friars.
The identitarian theme of the free choice without perpetual vows, that defines the Congregation as a type of religious assembly, was represented by the miracle of the revived laurel.
The legend says that one of St. Lawrence’s companions, probably his friend Maffeo Contarini, troubled in doubt, asked the confrere to help him to persist in religious life. The Saint handed him a branch of cooked laurel and commanded him to bury it. To cope with this complex narrative, Gabriel del Barco divides the panel into two scenes. In the foreground, the Spanish painter depicts the delivery of the cooked laurel branch and, in the background, the greenness laurel planted in the garden, with the victory of the faith commitment.
In the panels above, to emphasize this message, there are depicted the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, the martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch, and remarkably the martyrdom of the Roman general Placidus (St. Eustace), condemned to be roasted alive. They testify their fearless faith and devotion in Christ but, arrested and besieged by executioners, make a powerful contrast with the free devotion of the Lóios friars.
This discourse of images emphasizes the importance of the relationship between the Rector of Arraiolos and the painter Gabriel del Barco, who was probably responsible for the overall organization of the panels on the church walls.
SILVA, Libório Manuel & CARVALHO, Rosário Salema. Azulejos, Maravilhas de Portugal. Vila Nova de Famalicão: Centro Atlântico, 2017. ISBN 978-989-615213-0.