The best workshop of the time, led by António de Oliveira Bernardes and his son Policarpo de Oliveira Bernardes, produced a remarkable sequence of tiles sets for the Mercy Churches in Estremoz (1712), Évora (1716), Grandola (c. 1720) and Viana do Castelo (1719-1721).
Despite some changes, the ensemble of the Igreja da Misericórdia in Évora still conserves the major part of the original decoration. The initiative was directed by Archbishop Simão da Gama (1703-1715), who was also the administrator of the Brotherhood. In 1710, it was the archbishop himself who, together with the master woodcarver Francisco da Silva, signed the contract for the gilded frontispiece of the chancel and the sidewalls frames on the nave. These marvelous works defined the new configuration of the whole inner space of the church.
The set of tiles and paintings intended to compose a sort of manual for the perfect brother of the Mercy Churches, in harmony with the holy models of Jesus Christ and Mary. To be able to understand the virtues of mercy presented to the members of the brotherhood, we can begin the description at the church entrance, in the area of the sub-choir, where still exists the cartouches with the original inscriptions.
The chosen verses are related to the concept of mercy itself in its most profound sense, pointing out to the contract made with Christ himself. The message addressed to the brothers of the Holy House, associates the works of mercy with the salvation: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew, 5: 7) and “Blessed is he who considers the weak and the poor; the Lord will deliver him in the time of evil and trouble” (Psalms, 41: 1).
The other four figurative panels represent male and female hermit saints, in a distinct work by Policarpo de Oliveira Bernardes. The tile panels are crowned, in the upper part, with emblems that alert us to the importance of preparing ourselves for eternal life, reminding that we do not know the time of our death, with the representation of a coffin and the verse “Be ye, therefore, ready also” (Luke, 12: 40).
St. Anthony, the abbot, St. Paul, the hermit, St. Thaïs, and St. Mary of Egypt, revealed in prayer, ignoring the needs of the body, are examples of penitence and regard for the spirit.
Penitence is also an important work of mercy, as explained by the priest João Fonseca:
We can exercise these works of mercy to the benefit to the dead in three ways: the first and most important of these is with the Sacrifice of the Mass, saying and ordering to be said many masses for them; the second is with prayers; the third is with penal works, such as fasts, penitences, alms, pilgrimages and other similar works, and gaining indulgences through them.
In the upper part of the walls of the church, only two paintings depicting the works of mercy are from the original commission accomplished by the painter Francisco Lopes Mendes, in 1715. They represent the work of mercy Giving food to the hungry through the episode in which the widow of Zarephath feeds the prophet Elijah (1 Kings, 17: 2-6) and Giving drink to the thirsty with the aid that Rebekah gives to Eliezer, to his men and camels (Genesis, 24: 15-21).
Probably because the others paintings were not easily identifiable biblical stories, only two decades later, another artist from Évora, José Xavier de Castro, repainted five of the seven episodes from the corporal works of mercy, with representations that were traditionally associated with the programs of the Mercy Churches, as we can see in the work Ransoming the captives, represented in the same way as in the Igrejas da Misericódia in Faro and Silves.
Under the paintings, the blue-and-white tiles represent several episodes of the Life of Christ, with an expressive individualization of emotions of the characters. With the outstanding quality of the António de Oliveira Bernardes brushwork, they provide an updating of the iconographic program of the Mercy Churches, with the spiritual works of mercy underlining the commitment to the salvation of the souls. They also reveal António de Oliveira Bernardes as a good interpreter of allegorical narratives in which the images match the sacred words.
As a complement to this allegorical discourse, at the base of the large figurative panels, the painter Teotónio dos Santos, a collaborator from the workshop, depicted the works of mercy as clever emblems. Sadly, the set of tiles was marred by the introduction of the pews for the confraternity’s governing committee, probably in the first half of the nineteenth century.
With the same sense of unity, variety, and complementarity of a decoration lead by the principles of the bel composto, the narrative of images pursues an ideal of completeness, gathering various kinds of records, each one of them linked to the main discourse.
The main feature of the eighteenth century decorative programs of the churches of Mercy was the elaboration of a complete discourse, with the addition of the spiritual works of mercy, in a manner to express all the nuances of Christian mercy.
MAMGUCCI, Celso. The scripture of images. The didactic narrative of the works of mercy. A “Compromisso” for the future. 500th anniversary of the first printed edition of the Compromisso of the Confraternity of the Misericórdia. Lisboa: Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa, 2017. ISBN 978-989-8712-60-5.