In 1775, the monastery of São Bento de Cástris, following the reforms ordered by the Marquis of Pombal, was extinguished and the nuns transferred to the Odivelas Monastery, near Lisbon, where they remained only two years. In 1777, with the accession of D. Maria I to the throne, the Reformist policies were reversed, paving the way for the nuns to return to Évora.
To celebrate this event, a major campaign of works was undertaken, with the request of a new gilded wood-carved altar for the main chapel and the order of 19 tile panels with scenes of the life of the French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, considered a spiritual guide of the Cistercian order. Dated around 1783-1785, they are likely to have been produced at the Royal Tableware Factory, in Lisbon.
Along the walls of the church, the story of the Saint begins on the left side of the entrance door and unfolds in chronological order around the church.
The figurative scenes, in blue and white, contrast with the polychrome borders, where pilasters and urns are skilfully combined with rococo ornaments. They unify the space in a sparkling ensemble, animating the walls of the old Manueline style temple.
At the top of the left arm of the transept, we can see the episode of Lactation, one of the most essential of Bernardine iconography. The Saint, kneeling, contemplates the Virgin with the Child, and she, amid a cloud of angels, holds one of her breasts to feed Bernard.
According to the legend, the statue of Mary came to life as he pronounced the words Monstra te esse matrem [shows that you are a mother], moistening the mouth of the Saint, that had dried up from praying for a long time.
The theme of Lactation, widespread during the Counter-Reformation, sanctifies the eloquence of the “honey-sweet” Doctor, who received the spiritual food directly from the mother of God.
This episode also states the special devotion Bernard had for the Virgin, to whom he dedicated a large part of his writings. Mary, in her virginity and humility, is a model of conduct as well as an intermediary to reach Christ and the access to divine graces. Since then, Marian devotion has remained one of the fundamental characteristics of Cistercian spirituality.
To depict the episodes of the life of Bernard of Clairvaux, the tile painter used a set of engravings by the German painter Gottfried Bernhard Göz (1708-1774), printed under the title Historia Vitae S. Bernardi. The series of engravings reproduced the paintings made for the Kaisheim Abbey, and they faithfully followed the official accounts of his hagiography.
On the other hand, retelling the life of Bernard of Clairvaux was as important as telling the story of the convents erected by the order, and Frei Bernardo de Brito, the most influential Portuguese historian of his time, included Bernard of Clairvaux hagiography in the Chronicle of Cister.
In the words of the monk of Alcobaça Abbey, his virtues are comparable to the great monuments left by Antiquity:
What did not happen to our sacred Cistercian religion, because following in this way the path of the Ancients, it decorated the Catholic Church with the highest pyramids of saints, whose great virtue serves as a wonder on Earth. It filled it with as beautiful coliseums and amphitheaters as are the convents in various parts of the world, in which there are unique challenges of virtues against vices and unique challenges of constant spirits against the temptations of the devil.
Through the hagiography transposed on the tiles, the order returned to its history and reaffirmed its place before the city of Évora. With renewed confidence, the nuns can again contemplate the prospect of the distant buildings from the top of their hill.
VERÃO, Maria Teresa. Os azulejos do Mosteiro de São Bento de Cástris de Évora: o ciclo bernardino e o seu significado. Lisboa: Universidade Nova, 2009.