Art Literature Theology

The Shortness of Life on the Emblems of António de Sousa de Macedo

The emblems created by the Portuguese diplomat António de Sousa de Macedo (1606-1682) are rooted in a deep humanist tradition and were designed to provide a scholarly discourse to architecture.

At least since 1653, Sousa de Macedo had a private oratory on the right side of the main chapel of the church of the Convent of Our Lady of Jesus in Lisbon. As can be seen in a late eighteenth-century plan, the poet and diplomat could enter directly into the chapel through a reserved door and, after his prayers, access directly to the transept of the church to commune. He could also, through another door, pass to the cloister, for a quiet walk with his thoughts.  

Plant and elevations of the Oratory of the Convent of Jesus. Joaquim de Oliveira [?], c. 1775-1800 © Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa.
Plant and elevations of the Oratory of the Convent of Jesus. Joaquim de Oliveira [?], c. 1775-1800 © Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa.

With an image of Jesus Christ crucified, the oratory, envisioned as a memento mori, was conceived long before the proximity of the death of Sousa de Macedo, as he engraved for posterity:

Dealing with death at the best time of his life, he founded and endowed this chapel for himself and his wife D. Mariana Lemercier and his descendants, with thirty thousand réis of income each year for a perpetual daily Mass and a set of nine lessons in the octave fest of the deceased, and another six thousand réis of income for the administration and some other for suppliers.

The emblems painted on the tiles of the vault belongs to the best tradition of the 16th-century humanist emblematic and were created in dialogue with the compilations published by Andrea Alciato (1531), Pierio Valeriano (1556), Juan de Borja (1581), Juan de Horozco y Covarrubias (1589) and Hernando de Soto (1599).

Transposed to the architecture, the concepts about the shortness of life are part of the strategy of affirming the literate virtuous image, formed in law at the Universidade de Coimbra, who would become secretary of State of the short reign of D. Afonso VI.

As an introduction of the decorative program, Sousa de Macedo transformed the verses of his epic Ulyssippo, composed in praise of the mythical origins of the homeland, into two emblems that he placed over the main doors of the chapel, wrapped in elaborate cartouches. In the first, in a revelation of a metaphorical ellipse of the verses of the first stanza, the instability of human life was represented by the spinning of a top on the ground, that ends up preventing the continuity of its own movement:

The man works with panting wishes / The glory that he desires appears to him / Being the childish game that, as it turns, / digs its own grave.

Complementarily, the verses continue above the front door, where the uncertainty of life is compared to the candle that consumes itself:

The top game. Oratório do Convento de Jesus, c. 1653. © Teresa Verão.

How much better it would be if warned / that life is already dying as it lasts. / Ah, human breast of infirm greed, to whom a small pit is a large one.

Sousa de Macedo placed the figure of the Sun in the center of the vault, to reinforce the idea of the cardinal virtues represented in each of four emblems on the corners. The meditation on death allows to recognize Justice, even in the challenging cases (the end of the flowers in the fullness of beauty and youth); to face, with Courage, the setbacks of Fortuna (the leaves blown away by the wind); to cultivate Temperance and the harmony of passions (music); and to discern with Prudence even in the most nebulous subjects (vapor cloud).

Following the most scholarly authors, the originality of the program is not in the individual creation of the emblems, but in the composition of the iconographic discourse, somewhat like Macedo himself, in his work Eva e Ave, characterizes the structure of the book as an original one:

But I do not ask the fathers to deny their children, since they are imperfect: I confess that the architecture is mine and that it seems that I serve in it like bees making [honey] from someone else’s [sweetness], they serve more than spiders weaving from their own.

During this period, in a significant symbiosis, the decorations of the books are borrowed from the architecture, as well as the emblems of António de Macedo use the cartouches of the work of Juan de Borja or the suggestions of how the phylacteries are involved with the images of the work of Horozco y Covarrubias.

With this erudite program, the tiles of the oratory of Jesus stand out for their quality among the most naive production of the period.

LUCENDO ENDIT IN OCCASUM. Oratório do Convento de Jesus, c. 1653 © Teresa Verão.


HOROZCO Y COVARRUBIAS, Juan de. Emblemas morales de don Juan de Horozco y Covarruvias. Saragoza: Alonso Rodríguez, 1604.

MACEDO, António de Sousa de. Ulyssippo: poema heroico de Antonio de Sousa de Macedo. Lisboa: Antonio Alvarez, 1640.

MACEDO, António de Sousa de. Eva, e Ave, ou Maria triunfante: theatro da erudiçam, & filosofia Christa: em que se representaõ os dous estados do mundo: cahido em Eva, e levantado em Ave: primeyra, e segunda parte. Lisboa, 1700 [1ª ed., 1676].

MANGUCCI, António Celso & RODRIGUES, Paulo Simões. “Memento Mori. Os emblemas do iconógrafo António de Sousa de Macedo para o oratório de Jesus”. In ANDRÉ, Paula (ed.). Antologia de Ensaios – Laboratório Colaborativo: Dinâmicas Urbanas, Património, Artes. VI Seminário de investigação, ensino e difusão. Lisboa: DINÂMIA’CET-ISCTE, 2021.

Igreja do Convento de Nossa Senhora de Jesus, Lisbon

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