Science Tiles

The Public Order of Time

The clocks of the modern period, despite entirely mechanical, have not forgotten their former dependence on the star at the centre of the Solar System.

The replacement of the sundial by a machine that does not depend on the sunlight allowed a new accuracy in the recording of civil and religious time. When the time comes, the heavy iron mechanisms made the bells rang the canonical hours – Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline –, regulating the fulfilment of prayers in monasteries and convents.

Francisco de Holanda, Horologivm Venetiarvm in Platea Divi Marci, Álbum dos Desenhos das Antigualhas (1538-1540).
 Francisco de Holanda, Horologivm Venetiarvm in Platea Divi Marci, Álbum dos Desenhos das Antigualhas (1538-1540).

Standing on the top of high towers, these new machines also served the civilian power, notably if added with an astronomical calendar. The St. Mark’s clock of Venice, which the painter Francisco de Holanda represented in the Álbum dos Desenhos das Antigualhas, is probably one of the most famous in Europe. Associated with the vast power of the Republic, the clock of Venice reveals the order of the universe and until today displays the hour, the day of the month, the lunar phase and the passage of the Sun through the constellations of the zodiac in a set designed by the brothers Ranieri da Reggio, in 1496.

In Portugal, the clock on the Paço da Ribeira das Naus tower, built during the reign of D. Manuel I, was the central regulator of everyday life in Lisbon.  In 1628, after a petition to Philip IV, it was the turn of the Cathedral’s of Lisbon clock to receive its new dial, giving public visibility to the old one in the medieval tower.

The Franciscan Frei João da Comenda, who lived in the second half of the 15th century, is the first reference of someone who dedicated himself to the construction of mechanical clocks in Portugal. He manufactured about twelve, nine of which went to the various convents of his order, two to Jerónimos monasteries and one to the convent of Ínsua. These new mechanisms demonstrate that, at the end of the 15th century, the clock was an indispensable instrument for regulating monastic life. The clock in the tower, visible to everyone, published the divine order for its ​​rural or urban neighborhoods.

Clock dial of Igreja da Graça de Santarém (c. 1585-1600). Nuno Moreira © Museu Municipal de Santarém Igreja de São João de Alporão.

These same characteristics were present in the clock of the convent of the Eremitas Calçados de Santo Agostinho, in Santarém. At the end of the 16th century, it has a single hand and a marvellous tiled dial.

The large dial forms a square composed of 22 x 22 tiles, painted with a shade of blue, white, yellow and manganese colours. It has a ring outlined by a triple circumference, with the hours in Roman numerals interspersed by a polygon. In the centre, a blue circle inscribes the compass rose, a reminiscent of the Sun as a geographical and temporal reference. In the corners, four children’s heads blow, forming small clouds that represent the cardinal winds. Nowadays it stands in the Municipal Museum of the city.

The border that delimits the panel is similar to that found in the tiles of the chapel of São Roque of the homonymous church, in Lisbon, a work by Francisco de Matos dated 1584. This circumstance may have determined the date proposed by João Miguel dos Santos Simões, around 1585. However, it should be noted that the border on the panel of the Alcácer do Sal fountain, made in 1597, is also similar. It will probably be a work from the Lisbon workshop of João and Filipe de Góis, whose activity lasted until the end of the 16th century.

The dial of the collection of the Museu Municipal Dr. Santos Rocha, in Figueira da Foz, is similar to the Museu Municipal de Santarém dial, but was painted only in blue and white. It originally belonged to the Monastery of Santa Maria de Seiça. In the centre, it displays a wind rose with human features personifying the Sun. In the four outer corners of the ring, one can once again observe the allegorical representation of the four winds, through the figuration of human heads with pairs of wings.

What is certain is that, whether it was in a bell tower or in a clock tower, accompanying both religious and civil architecture, the tile dials reflect the new public face of time.

Clock dial of the Santa Maria de Seiça Monastery in Figueira da Foz, 18th century. © Museu Municipal Dr. Santos Rocha.
Clock dial of the Santa Maria de Seiça Monastery in Figueira da Foz, 18th century. © Museu Municipal Dr. Santos Rocha.


BRUTON, Eric. The History of Clocks and Watches. London: Time Warner Books UK, 2002.

MARINHO, Lúcia. Guardiães do tempo: A arte da relojoaria na colecção da Casa-Museu Dr. Anastácio Gonçalves. Lisboa: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa, 2010. Dissertação de Doutoramento em História da Arte. Disponível em:

MARINHO, Lúcia. “O azulejo e o tempo: os painéis cerâmicos que marcaram as horas a partir do século XVI” in ARTIS – Revista de História da Arte e Ciências do Património, n. 6, 2018, pp. 16-21.

OLIVEIRA, Fernando Correia de. História do tempo em Portugal: elementos para uma história do tempo, da relojoaria e das mentalidades em Portugal. Lisboa: Âncora, 2003.

OLIVEIRA, Fernando Correia de; MATOS, José Sarmento de. Tempo e poder em Lisboa: o relógio do Arco da Rua Augusta. Lisboa: Espiral do Tempo, 2008.

Santarém, Igreja de São João de Alporão

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