Among the first works by Gabriel del Barco, the tile panels painted for the São Vítor Church of Braga stand out. The building, started in 1686, designed by military engineer Miguel Lescole, and sponsored by Archbishop D. Luís de Sousa, was the first church planned to receive a complete covering of figurative tiles inside.
We do not know the indications that were transmitted to the painter, but the choice of Primeira Parte da Historia Ecclesiastica dos Arcebispos de Braga e dos Santos e Varoens Illustres que florescerão neste Arcebispado, by D. Rodrigo da Cunha, as the main source of the program, allows us to recognize how the literary narrative was used to articulate the discourse of images in architecture.
Although innovative as an iconographic project, the decorative program is relatively simple and the tiles cover the entire walls of the temple, resuming a traditional solution used by the 17th-century pattern tiles. The panels form a portrait gallery of little-known saints but whose hagiography belongs to the territory of Braga.
In the main chapel, there is a more complex narrative cycle with nine episodes of the Life of Saint Victor, with the display of the same theme in two different panels, the Festival of Ceres on the left side and the refusal of Saint Victor to participate in pagan festivals on the opposite side.
Occupying a prominent position, in the high choir, there is a monumental representation of Paterno, bishop of Braga, presiding over a council in Toledo, which would prove the hierarchical ascendant of the Portuguese City over the Spanish City competing for the same distinction.
That is the key theme that defines the general objective of the images of São Vítor Church, with political discourse in defense of the ambitions of the city. In this panel, the bibliographic citation is a fundamental element that gives an ecclesiastical authority to the images, at the same time that it resumes the nationalist tradition of 17th-century Portuguese historiography.
Still, in the high choir, Gabriel del Barco designed a large frieze that goes around the oculus and draws a cartouche with profuse scrolls and foliage, continuing in a wrapping of acanthus leaves punctuated by vigorous Atlanteans. That up to date ornamental design reminds us of the relative independence of decorative programs concerning architectural projects.
Revealing some experimentalism from this first figurative phase, the order of the tiles, probably carried out in 1691, already after the death of the archbishop and the architect, suffered some setbacks, and the tiles were only placed between the years 1692 and 1694, by the master tiler João Neto da Costa, from Vila do Conde, after a dispute between the canons of the Cathedral of Braga with the master tiler António Antunes (act.1676-1709) who “did not want to come and did not remit the measures until today.”
In this case, the conflict demonstrates the role of the tile painter in the overall articulation of the order, a function that will be disputed with the master tilers in the following decades, precisely because of the need to execute a detailed plan that relates each figurative panel, and thus each of the tiles, with a predetermined architectural space.
MONTEIRO, João Pedro (ed.). Um gosto português. O uso do azulejo no século XVII. Lisboa: Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Athena, 2012. ISBN 978-989-31-0030-1.