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Art Theology

Images for a Divine Pedagogy

The decorative program of the Saint James Church was completed between the years 1699 and 1700, already in the final part of the archbishopric of Friar Luís da Silva Teles. The iconographic program articulates the tile panels with the frescoes on the ceiling, in an exaltation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, a fundamental theme for the Catholic Church after the Council of Trent.

The painting of the tiles of the church of Santiago concluded a long process of reconfiguration of the interior of the temple, which had started around 1680, with the reconstruction of the triumphal arch, and the redefinition of the main chapel decorative program.

The first works took place under the direction of the prior of the parish, Cristóvão Soares de Albergaria, who marked the patronage with his coat of arms and the painting of São Cristóvão [Saint Christopher], with the Child Jesus on his shoulders, placed at the top of the triumphal arch. As part of this pictorial campaign, carried out by a workshop of Évora, there are also three paintings with episodes of the Passion of Christ: the Ecce Homo, the Noli me Tangere, and the Lamentation over Christ the Dead.

Church of Santiago, Évora. Miguel Cardoso © SNBCI
Church of Santiago, Évora. Miguel Cardoso © SNBCI.

The decorative program of the church was completed between the years 1699 and 1700, already in the final part of the archbishopric of Friar Luís da Silva Teles. The iconographic program articulates the tile panels with the frescoes on the ceiling, in an exaltation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, a fundamental theme for the Catholic Church after the Council of Trent.

The tiles, one of the most important works of Gabriel del Barco, were structured in three horizontal registers. In the intermediate register, using the two sides of the nave, four panels tell the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke, 15: 11-32): the departure after the division of goods, the dissipation of all his possessions with the courtesans, the humiliation with the infamous work of guarding the pigs and, in the end, the reconciliation with the merciful and happy father.

The lower register, in three panels, elaborates a dramatic antithesis: Patriarch Abraham, obeying a divine order, is ready to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22: 1-19). On the tiles, we watch the encounter with the two angels who communicate the divine order and we follow the “calvary” of the Isaac who carries a bundle of firewood. But, as we know, Abraham was prevented, at the last moment, by the angel’s hand, and the Patriarch, tested in the deepest of his fatherly feelings, is a hero in his unwavering faith in the divine word. Following a biblical exegesis, the episodes of Isaac’s sacrifice are one of the most frequent pre-figurations of the Passion of Christ and the institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Abraham and Isaac on the path to the Mount Moriah, Gabriel del Barco, 1699. Miguel Cardoso © SNBCI
Abraham and Isaac on the path to the Mount Moriah, Gabriel del Barco, 1699. Miguel Cardoso © SNBCI.

In a peculiar way, interrupting the horizontal line of Abraham’s story, a panel was chosen with the representation of King David, on his knees, with the scepter and crown thrown to the floor, sorry for his arrogant performance after the census carried out by Joab. The Lord, through the mouth of the seer Gad, asks him to choose between the punishment of hunger, war, or plague for his people (2 Samuel, 24: 12). In the iconographic discourse, the episode is justified to establish an antithetical comparison between the sinful king and the faithful patriarch. We can also understand the episode as a prefiguration of the Eucharist, once the altar that David erected in Araunah was designed for the expiation and the remission of his sins (2 Samuel, 24: 25).

At the top, in the six panels of the third register, as if they belonged to a structure of a sermon of images, there are the episodes of the loving and evangelizing action of Jesus Christ, complementing the iconographic program with the virtue of Hope, the virtue of trust in life eternal and the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Allegory of Justice, Francisco Lopes Mendes.  1700. Miguel Cardoso © SNBCI
Allegory of Justice, Francisco Lopes Mendes, 1700. Miguel Cardoso © SNBCI.

Among these is the episode in which Jesus recognizes Zacchaeus (Luke, 19: 1-10), the rich tax collector “who had been lost” and a second in which he accepts the sinful woman. Both were penitent and predisposed to receive the divine word: little Zacchaeus went up to the fig tree to meet Jesus in the crowd, and the woman addressed him with humility and love at the banquet at Simon’s house, the Pharisee.

The fresco campaign on the ceiling was carried out in the same year that the Spanish painter finished the tiles. Unfortunately, two later interventions altered the paintings of the two central sections (c.1750-60) and the triumphal arch (c.1910).

If the theological virtues of Faith, Charity, and Hope structure the discourse on tiles, the frescoes on the nave’s ceiling are organized according to the four cardinal virtues that present a path of spiritual and moral improvement implicit in the sacrament of Eucharistic communion.

As was common in the sermons, biblical sentences were chosen to support the discourse. In the first section, a contraction of a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “Blessed is he who finds wisdom and is rich in prudence” is represented by an allegory adapted from the well-known work of Cesare Ripa, with a female figure holding the mirror of the self-knowledge and the wisdom represented by the snake.

Francisco Lopes Mendes. Ceiling of the Igreja de Santiago, 1700. Miguel Cardoso © SNBCI
Francisco Lopes Mendes. Ceiling of the Igreja de Santiago, 1700. Miguel Cardoso © SNBCI.

On the opposite side, the figure of Temperance, pouring wine into a glass with water, encourages the healthy moderation of desires: “he who abstains prolongs life.”

In the high choir, the figure of Justice, sustained by the beginning of a verse in the book of Kings, “hear, then, from heaven,” underlining the divine direction, is represented with the traditional attributes of the sword and the scales. She brings also a bundle of sticks symbolizing, as the Italian iconographer once again explains, that justice has a certain time, neither early nor late, as the maturity required for the harvest of wicker.

In virtue of the Fortress, represented by the female figure that supports a column, an excerpt from the verses of the song in praise of the Lord exhort perseverance in the pursuit of good and moral improvement.

Attributed to the painter Francisco Lopes Mendes, the ensemble of paintings, which a modern appeal, falls clearly within the scope of the works of the most important Lisbon workshop, directed by António Oliveira Bernardes and José Ferreira de Araújo, repeating the openings with balustrades painted from sotto in sù, where five figures, reinforcing the illusory effect, spill a pitcher of water, gold coins, a candle and a stone over the viewer.

Underlining the thematic unity of the whole ensemble of images, the pictorial campaign closes at the high choir with a monumental representation of the angels in veneration of the Holy Eucharist.

ESSENTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

MANGUCCI, Celso. “Sob o império da Retórica. Os programas iconográficos de Santiago e São Mamede de Évora” in Invenire. Revista de Bens Culturais da Igreja, nº 8, 2014, pp. 34-47.

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