Literature Theology

The Sacristy as Scenery of Moral and Mystical Allegories

In the sacristy of the Convento de Santo António do Varatojo, we can admire a series of figured tile panels that show a combined program of allegorical compositions from the illustrations of two 17th century influential books of devotional emblems.

The iconographic program, attributed to the Lisbon workshop of Policarpo Oliveira Bernardes and dated c. 1723-34, extends over the three walls of the sacristy of this beautiful Franciscan convent situated in Torres Vedras. It is essentially composed of allegorical scenes inspired by the engravings of two of the most popular and widespread books of ascetic emblems of the previous century: Hermann Hugo’s Pia Desideria (first edition: Antwerp, 1624), with two panels in the lower level of the southern wall, and the Schola cordis, by Benedictus van Haeften (first edition: Antwerp, 1629), represented in six tile panels of the upper register of the walls.

Sacristy of the Convento de Santo António do Varatojo. © JJGA.

These compositions refer, in conformity with the message transmitted by the original books, to the process of Christian perfection and the joy of divine union through a process of mystical asceticism. In the same manner, they invoke the tests to which the human heart may undergo to achieve its detachment from the material concerns and its conversion to God.

The iconographic program responds to a trend that became general in Portugal, especially during the second quarter of the 18th century: the use of series of symbolic compositions in auxiliary rooms (refectories, sacristies) of churches and monastic complexes, in many cases of feminine character, based on images from emblem books as a visual starting point to stimulate devotion or meditation.

This type of emblematic treatise used as a kind of illustrated catechism or manuals of devotion with a markedly moralizing orientation were easily accessible to potential readers in their vernacular (the Pia Desideria had a Portuguese edition: Joseph Pereira Veloso, Desejos piedosos de huma alma saudosa do seu divino esposo Jesu Christo, Lisboa, 1688).

In the same way that the stag is drawn unto the water fountains… Policarpo de Oliveira Bernardes, c. 1723-1734. © JJGA.

Those works, inspired by the Jesuit meditation method and supported by recognizable allegorical images, made use of notably familiar and delightful biblical quotes – the Psalms or the Song of Songs – and can therefore be easily adjusted to a “pedagogical” aim in harmony with the conventual sensibility.

It is this intention that seems transferred to the tile program that concerns us here, in view not only of the Spanish and Portuguese translation of the explanatory stanzas, but also of an apparent tendency to select those emblems that, from their visual impact, enable a faster and effortless understanding of the moral concept.

Quemadmodum desiderat cervuus ad fontes aquarum. Hermann Hugo Pia Desideria © Rijskmuseum
Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum. Pia Desideria, Hermann Hugo © JJGA.

Among the several topics alluded in this program, it emphasizes the need to purify our passions and negative emotions; the rejection of material desires and temptations and the call to engage in contemplative prayer; the importance of practicing virtues such as humility and meekness; and, finally, the adoption of the sacrifice and suffering as the quickest and most effective means of achieving salvation and mystical union with God. In this way, those images would continue to perform the edifying and exemplary function of their literary equivalents, possibly more directly and effectively from the walls of spaces linked to the collective confessional experiences of their users.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is varatojocordised.jpgCordis Emollitio. Benedictus van Haeften. Schola cordis © Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren
Cordis Emollitio. Benedictus van Haeften. Schola cordis © JJGA.

A curious detail is the Spanish translation of the stanzas that appear at the bottom of the panels, inspired by the Latin inscriptions of Van Haeften. It is surprising that such compositions are original or, at least, not taken from the only Spanish translation available at that time from the Schola cordis (Escuela del corazón, Madrid, 1720), with Varatojo’s verses being a freer and less adjusted proposal from the Latin. For now, we cannot offer any reasonable hypothesis about the authorship or the reasons for the choice of the translation of the emblematic texts of this engaging and attractive tile program.


MECO, José. Azulejaria portuguesa, Lisboa: Bertrand Editora, 1985. ISBN 972-25-0054-6.

RIBEIRO, Frei Bartolomeu. Convento de Santo António de Varatojo, Torres Vedras: Gráfica Torriana, 2005.

GARCÍA ARRANZ, José Julio. “El programa emblemático en azulejos de la sacristía del convento de Santo António de Varatojo (Torres Vedras, Portugal)”, in De Arte. Revista de Historia del Arte, n. 17, 2018, pp. 77-94.

Convento do Varatojo, Torres Vedras

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s