Art History Literature

The Perfect Christian King

The Monastery of São Vicente de Fora main hall, with a gallery of royal portraits, has one of the most outstanding programs of images from the Portuguese 18th century.

The Monastery of São Vicente de Fora main hall in Lisbon has one of the most outstanding programs of images from the 18th century. The work, already completed in 1712, in the early years of the reign of D. João V, presented a perfect combination of tiles, gilded woodcarvings, coloured marbles and fresco paintings. To highlight the novelty of the ceiling painted by Vicenzo Baccarelli (1682-1745), unfortunately hardly damaged by the earthquake of 1755, the priest and mathematician António Carvalho da Costa described it, like a “… truly royal entrance, which clearly shows that a vivid painting was achieved by the use of perspective.”

In a creation that reveals the careful composition of preparatory drawings, the tiles, painted by Manuel dos Santos, serve as a support for the reproduction of the military victories of D. Afonso Henriques in Santarém and Lisbon, for the representation of the fervorous prayers of Saint Theotonius in Santa Cruz de Coimbra, and also for the depiction of a select gallery of royal portraits.

D. Afonso Henriques leading the construction of the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora. Manuel dos Santos, c. 1710 © MTV
D. Afonso Henriques leading the construction of the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora. Manuel dos Santos, c. 1710 © MTV.

D. Afonso Henriques, the founder king, was also portrayed leading the construction of the São Vicente de Fora Monastery, fulfilling the pious vow of giving a Christian burial to the knights dead in the conquer of Lisbon, in 1147, as the chronicler Frei Nicolau de Santa Maria remembered:

Our Archbishop of Braga, D. João Peculiar, Canon of the Monastery of Santa Cruz de Coimbra, was in the Army, with whom, the King communicating his thoughts, made him consecrate two Cemeteries, one in the place where he had his legion on the part of the East of the City, where you can now see the Monastery of São Vicente, & another in the place where the Foreigners were lodged towards the West, where today you can see the Church of the Martyrs, & the Monastery of São Francisco. As the Cemeteries were sacred, the King D. Afonso vowed to Our Lord to found two monasteries in them if He would give him the victory & the city.

The royal portrait gallery is formed by the kings who expressed the desire to be buried in the monasteries of the Order of Saint Augustine and the emblems attached to the lower part of the portraits, built from the biblical text, resume the idea of a Christian commitment. According to the verses, in the reign of D. Afonso Henriques, peace is endlessly guaranteed “as the moon endured” (Psalm 72: 7) and, despite the defeat at Alcácer-Quibir, D. Sebastião will have his body eternally protected from the arrows of the enemies: “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come near thee” (Psalm 91: 7).

Quis mea in saeculum saeculi hic habitabo quoniam elegi eam. Manuel dos Santos, c. 1710 © MTV.
Quis mea in saeculum saeculi hic habitabo quoniam elegi eam. Manuel dos Santos, c. 1710 © MTV.

D. João IV, who reinforced the commitment and chose São Vicente de Fora as the pantheon of the kings of the new dynasty, was represented next to the sumptuous tomb, accompanied by the motto: “This is my rest forever: here will I dwell, for I have a delight therein” (Psalm 132: 14).

If D. Pedro II appears as the perfect example of the king who conquered the love of God and men (Ecclesiasticus 45: 1), the priors of São Vicente de Fora Monastery, in this revisitation of historical memory, did not forget to advise the young D. João V, who should continue to seek the complementarity between the sphere of the political and the divine: “Give therefore to Caesar, the things which are Caesar’s, and give unto God, those things which are God’s” (Matthew 22: 21).

If the hardships passed under Spanish rule made the importance of historical providentialism and divine grace even more present, the iconographic program recalls that the São Vicente de Fora priors are helpful auxiliaries in maintaining God’s trust, because, as Saint Theotonius of Coimbra explains, “this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28: 17).

Non est hic aliud nisi domus dei et porta caeli. Manuel dos Santos, c. 1710 © MTV
Non est hic aliud nisi domus dei et porta caeli. Manuel dos Santos, c. 1710 © MTV.

With the same point of view, based on the words of Saint Augustine, the Franciscan João da Conceição, in a sermon commemorating the transfer of Saint Vincent’s corpse to the chancel of the Lisbon Cathedral, defined D. Afonso Henriques as the perfect model of the Christian King, for combining military leadership with religious piety:

…because freeing Lisbon from the Moors by conquering it was a military value and bringing Saint Vincent’s corpse to the city was a Christian zeal. And more is in a King to be a great Christian than being a great soldier. But if you blend being a great soldier with being a great Christian, that is a perfect King. Saint Augustine makes more of a case for a King of Christian zeal and piety than of military value: Reges beatos judica Christiana religio qui suam potestatem ad cultum maxime dilatandum divina maestati famulam faciunt, quam qui hostes Reipublicae domuerunt.

The careful iconographic program outlined by the architect and poet Luís Nunes Tinoco, also responsible for the design of the tomb of D. João IV and its placement in the chancel of São Vicente de Fora, is a perfect combination of the various pictorial genres to build a historical revalidation of the objectives of the Real Congregação dos Agostinhos Descalços de Portugal.


ARRUDA, Luísa d’Orey Capucho. “O retrato de D. João V na portaria de São Vicente de Fora: um retrato barroco azul e branco” in Claro e Escuro. Revista de Estudos Barrocos. Lisboa: Quimera, 1989, nos 2-3, pp. 13-18.

COELHO, Teresa Maria da Trindade de Campos. Os Nunes Tinoco, uma dinastia de arquitectos régios. Lisboa: Tese de doutoramento, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2014.

CONCEIÇÃO, João da. Ao Illustrissimo, e Reverendissimo Senhor Dom Rodrigo da Cunha Arcebispo de Lisboa, do Concelho do Estado de Sua Magestade. Offerece este Sermam, que pregou em a sua Sancta Sè em o dia da Trasladação do glorioso Martyr São Vicente, em quinze de setembro do anno passado de 1641. Em Lisboa: Antonio Alvarez, 1641.

COSTA. António Carvalho. Corografia portugueza e descripçam topografica do famoso Reyno de Portugal. 3 volumes. Lisboa: Valentim da Costa Deslandes, 1706-1712.

SANTA MARIA, Nicolau de. Chronica da Ordem dos Conegos Regrantes do Patriarcha Santo Agostinho. Segunda Parte. Lisboa: Oficina de João da Costa, 1668.

Lisbon, Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora

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