Gabriel del Barco was one of the most important painters of the Baroque period, and especially of the so-called transition period (1675-1700). He played a central role with regard to the main changes introduced in the late 17th century in Portuguese tile decorations: the almost exclusive adoption of blue and white painting, exploring the characteristics of the medium and executed by painters with a more erudite training, who also mastered other art forms, such as easel or mural painting; and the narrative nature of the vast decorative programmes, covering above all the interiors of temples and other religious spaces, but also of palaces.
Born in Sigüenza, Spain, Gabriel del Barco was baptized in the same city on December 6th 1648 and settled at the age of 20 in Lisbon, where he became a fresco painter and afterwards a tile painter (see his biography on Az Infinitum). During his successful career as a tile painter, spanning just over ten years, he also stood out for the high number of works he signed and dated – no less than seventeen! The oldest one, dating back to 1689, can be found in the main chapel of the Church of the Convent of Espinheiro, in Évora, and the most recent ones, dating from 1700, decorate the Church of the Convent of Lóios, in Arraiolos, the Church of São Tiago, in Évora, a house near São Bento Street, in Lisbon, and the oratory we are now analysing (on the subject of signatures on azulejos, see the website Signatures and authorships marks on Portuguese azulejos.
The decorative programme dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, covering an oratory with the same dedication in a private estate in High Alentejo, was made known by Teresa Saporiti in a book entitled Azulejaria do Distrito de Portalegre, published in 2006. The photographs by Raúl Ladeira revealed some details of the main compositions and the base of this impressive covering, but the text mentioned only the year 1700, without transcribing or reproducing the signature – which, according to the information provided by the author, was concealed by a heavy piece of furniture.
The photograph we now publish confirms the authorship, allows for a more detailed analysis of the signature, following a wider approach, and paves the way for the in-depth research that this decoration deserves (in the absence of a formal confirmation, the work was not originally included in the website on signatures, but has now been updated).
The name is abbreviated, as is often the case with the painter’s signatures, and followed by the letter “F.”, which stands for Fecit, or Fez (the author used both Latin and Portuguese), thereby indicating the authorship and the year 1700. Unusually, however, the signature includes two capital “B”s – the first one next to a “G” that is identical to the others written by the painter, sometimes with “co” or “o” in superscript, and the second one further apart.
The oratory is very small and has a simple organization, structured according to two decorative levels. Both are enclosed by a one-tile frame of flowers with vegetal scrolls, masks at the corners and shells at the centre. On a base with playing children, also found in other works by Gabriel del Barco (the Church of Lóios, in Arraiolos, contains compositions identical to this one), two larger sections cover the side walls, depicting the Baptism of Christ, on the Gospel side, and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, on the Epistle side. It was here that the signature was found, on the side of what appears to be a wooden chest, close to an area of the composition interrupted by the window overlooking the corridor, the space’s only source of light (with unordered azulejos on one of the window’s inner walls).
On each side of the main doorway, the decorations focus on Saint John the Baptist: on the Gospel side, the saint is seated in the desert, holding a reed cross and feeding a lamb; on the Epistle side, he is standing next to the lamb, holding a cross with a phylactery containing the caption “ECCE AGNUS DEI” and part of the following sentence: “ecce qui tollit peccata mundi”. Above the doorway, the decoration consists of two vases with flowers, birds and azulejos with isolated motifs. Flanking the altar, at a height of ten azulejos (including the frame), two kneeling angels hold a floral wreath. Both were extensively truncated by the altar, especially on the Epistle side.
The Baptism of Christ is very similar to the one Gabriel del Barco painted in 1691 for a chapel with the same dedication, in the Estate of Our Lady of Conception, in Barcarena (in fact, the organization of the whole covering is similar to that of this earlier decoration). Both works reproduce an engraving by Cornelis Cort (1533-1578), after Francesco Salviati (1510-1563) and based on the same theme, although the composition in Portalegre is more faithful to the original.
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, on the other hand, evokes some of the martyrdom scenes found in the Church of Saint Victor, in Braga. Saint John has already been beheaded and is lying on the ground, on all fours, with blood pouring from his neck. In front of him, a cross bears a phylactery with the caption mentioned above. The executioner holds the head by the hair and offers it to Salome, who is holding a platter, accompanied by other women. The painting style and the faces are very typical of the painter, as well as the children playing with animals, which evoke the Dutch coverings of the churches of the Convents of Cardaes and Madre de Deus, both in Lisbon. As stated before, this motif is often present in the works of Gabriel del Barco.
Concluding, the azulejo is an integrated form of heritage and must be preserved as such, taking into account its interaction with the surrounding space, even if modified throughout the centuries. Indeed, these modifications have become tokens of a more or less distant past, providing the azulejos with a context without which they would cease to be one of the most distinctive elements of Portuguese art. In times of uncertainty – the most dangerous for cultural heritage – it is important to keep highlighting the need to preserve tile decorations in their architectural setting, so that future generations may go on enjoying the azulejos in all their glory.
Further online readings on Gabriel del Barco and signatures:
CARVALHO, Rosário Salema de. “A pintura do azulejo em Portugal [1675-1725]: autorias e biografias – um novo paradigma”. PhD Thesis, Universidade de Lisboa, 2012.
CARVALHO, Rosário Salema de. “Gabriel del Barco: la influencia de un pintor español en la azulejería portuguesa (1669-1701)”. Archivo Español de Arte 84, n. 335 (2011): 227–44.
CARVALHO, Rosário Salema de, and Francisco Queiroz. “Signatures and authorial marks on Portuguese Azulejos”. GlazeArt2018 International Conference Glazed Ceramics in Cultural Heritage, edited by Sílvia Pereira, Marluci Menezes, and José Delgado Rodrigues, 91-109. Lisboa: Laboratório Nacional de Engenharia Civil, 2018.
FLOR, Susana Varela and Pedro Flor. “Gabriel del Barco y Minusca pintor: elementos para uma visão prosopográfica da Lisboa Barroca”. La Sevilla lusa -La presencia portuguesa en el Reino de Sevilla durante el Barroco / A presença portuguesa no Reino de Sevilha no período Barroco, coordinated by Fernando Quiles, Manuel Fernández Chaves, and Antónia Fialho Conde, 252-287. Sevilha: E.R.A. Arte, Creación y Patrimonio Iberoamericanos en Redes / Universidad Pablo de Olavide and CIDEUS / Universidad de Évora, Portugal, 2018.