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Literature Theology

The Contemplative Flowers of Hope

In Lisbon, the tiles with emblems of the Convento da Esperança depict the beauty of flowers as a symbol of the contemplative life.

In 1649, the premature death of D. Maria de Ataíde, daughter of the Counts of Atouguia, described by her admirers as the most beautiful lady of the palace, deeply moved the court of D. João IV. The already famous preacher António Vieira was invited to deliver the funeral sermon, which was eventually published in an anthology of poems, epigrams, and literary epitaphs to form a sorrowing Lusitanian Parnassus, with the presence of the most distinguished literati of the time.

With his usual sagacity in making the best use of the conflict between the fragility of human emotion and the strength of God’s wisdom, the Jesuit preacher assumed the validity of the universal complaint of the brevity of life, ostensibly unfair when it takes one of just 24 years:

If to Job, if to the mirror of patience, his days being so long, appear to him short; if to David, to the pillar of the fortress, they appear poorly measured; if to Jacob, to the example of constancy, they seem few, & worse. How much more reason does her age have to complain about it, so much shorter measured, so much more briefly counted, so much less in the days, so much more cut in the blossom?

Vase with flowers and angels. Lisbon Potteries, 1660-1675. Convento de Nossa Senhora da Esperança de Lisboa. © Museu Nacional do Azulejo
Vase with flowers and angels. Lisbon Potteries, 1660-1675. Convento de Nossa Senhora da Esperança de Lisboa. © Museu Nacional do Azulejo.

As it was common in academic meetings, where poets agreed to use the same concepts, few literati did not engage on the theme of the extinguished flower at the peak of beauty. A flower is a mirror of life, and the wind takes it away.

As the study by João Pedro Monteiro has wisely shown, the captivating tile panels of the Convent of Esperança in Lisbon, unfortunately scattered throughout several museums and private collections, propose another metaphorical relationship with the beauty of flowers, which can be connoted with hope, precisely because both are fragile.

Frei Isidoro de Barreira, a monk of the Monastery of Christ, in Tomar, in his Treatise on the Meaning of Plants and Flowers, clarifies how this metaphor works, which is similar to the brevity of life:

Hopes are compared to flowers because they last as little as flowers & suffer as many inconveniences as they do. Saint Isidore says that the name of flower comes from the word, Fluo, which in Latin means to run down the water. So are the hopes of things in the world that run fast & disappear like water that goes to the sea.

But the beauty of the flowers still allows a third interpretation, closer to the contemplative life of the nuns of the Convent of Esperança. According to the sublime verses of the Gospel of Saint Matthew (6: 28-30), we must learn from the flowers that, despising the goods of earthly life, they do nothing and trust absolutely in divine providence: Learn how the lilies of the field grow. They neither weary nor spin. Yet I say to you that even Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these. As explained in Santo Hilario’s comment, paraphrased by Friar Isidoro de Barreira, in his Treatise:

These Lilies do not have to work, nor deserve to, because the Angelic virtues, by the blissful luck felt over them, have everything, & they lack nothing, nor can they lack.

Cognoscite lilia. Title Page and Eleven Prints of Flowers, Plants, and Fruit attributed to Crispijn van de Passe I, 1600 – 1604. © Rijksmuseum RP-P-2012-24-1.
Cognoscite lilia. Title Page and Eleven Prints of Flowers, Plants, and Fruit attributed to Crispijn van de Passe I, 1600 – 1604. © Rijksmuseum RP-P-2012-24-1.

As the careful representation of flora in these panels shows, there is no incompatibility between the meticulous reproduction of nature and its association with a moral context. On the contrary, the higher acuity in the representation of beauty, the better it depicts the benefits of faith in God.
To reinforce the idea of the importance of trust in divine providence, a second panel, with the representation of a peacock, with its tail open with the hundred eyes of God, over a tomb, combines the words of two verses from the Psalms: my fading eyes (Psalms 88: 10) and the light for my steps (Psalms 109: 105). In the emblem concept, God’s words are a sure guide on the pathway to eternal life.

Probably painted between 1664 and 1673, the cloister of the Convento da Esperança’s emblems, in praise of the contemplative life, display the close relationship between the iconographic program and the rules of Order of Saint Clare.

Flowerpot with birds and insects. Anonymous after Adriaen Collaert, c. 1601–1652. © Rijksmuseum RP-P-2013-1-60.

ESSENTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

A.A.V.V. Memorias funebres sentidas pellos ingenhos portugueses, na morte da Senhora Dona Maria de Attayde. Offerecidas a Senhora Dona Luiza Maria de Faro Condessa de Penaguiam. Lisboa: Officina Craesbekiana, 1650.

FIGUEIREDO, Paula. Mosteiro de Nossa Senhora da Piedade da Esperança in Sistema de Informação para o Património Arquitetónico (SIPA), 2012. Publicação on-line: http://www.monumentos.gov.pt/Site/APP_PagesUser/SIPA.aspx?id=34033

MONTEIRO, João Pedro. “Os vasos floridos do Convento de Nossa Senhora da Esperança de Lisboa” in Azulejo. Lisboa: Museu Nacional do Azulejo, 1991, nº 1, pp. 33-44.

BARREIRA, Isidoro de. Tratado das significaçoens das plantas, flores, e fruttos, que se referem na Sagrada Escrittura: tiradas de divinas, e humanas letras, com suas breves considerações pelo Padre Fr. Isidoro de Barreyra. Lisboa: officina de Manoel Lopes Ferreyra, 1698.

Lisbon, Museu Nacional do Azulejo

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