Portugese Art in the Maritime Era

By Faria D. Moreira, Rafael de | UNESCO Courier, April 1989 | Go to article overview

Portugese Art in the Maritime Era


Faria D. Moreira, Rafael de, UNESCO Courier


DURING Portugal's Golden Age of Discovery-from the conquest of Ceuta, Morocco, in 1415, to the death of Prince Henry the Navigator in 1460-Portuguese art was predominantly Gothic, then the common aesthetic standard throughout the Western world. Yet this was not the exuberant, florid Gothic of the great French cathedrals, but a simpler, more down-to-earth, less erudite and intellectual version, closer perhaps to the vernacular and to the less ornamental architecture of the mendicant religious orders and of the Cistercians. In modest buildings such as the still essentially nesque Hermitage of Our Lady of Guadaloupe, near Sagres, and constructions built to a serene, rigorously geometric design (such as the lesser cloisters of the monasteries of Batalha and Tomar) it is possible to detect the personal tastes of Henry the Navigator. His was a classical ideal of beauty which found its full expression in the canvases of the court painter Nuno Goncalves whose paintings exude a powerful mystic force and a sentiment of respect for the value of the individual (see pages 2 and 8).

It would, however, be a mistake to take this Franciscan humility as a sign of weakness. According to Reynaldo dos Santos, the polyptych for Sao Vicente, six panels painted by Nuno Goncalves for the See of Lisbon between 1460 and 1465, as the city's tribute to the leader of the conquest of Morocco, "reflects a new vision of Nature and of man". As redolent of Mediterranean humanism as it is of nordic realism, this work is one of the masterpieces of European painting. Moreover, the buildings in English Late Gothic style (such as those built by the French architect Huguet between 1402 and 1438 at the monastery of Batalha), the Tuscan-style paintings that Prince Henry seems to have admired so much (probably the work of Joao Gonvalves who in 1432 painted the fine Renaissance frescoes in the Abbey of Florenga) as well as the Moorish style of the Royal Palace at Sintra where King Joao I (1385-1433) received foreign envoys and visitors (among them the great Flemish painter Jan van Eyck) in exotic surroundings suited to his status as "Lord of Ceuta", are all contemporary aesthetic manifestations whose cosmopolitan nature is an expression of human diversity and receptivity.

Once feudal dominion over the Maghreb had been established, the seaborne thrust towards India became Portugal's national goal. Old legends were revived, fuelled by medieval accounts of fantastic voyages, of the conquests of Alexander the Great and tales of Troy which pictured Asia as a region of fabulous wealth inhabited mainly by Christians. To the subjects of King Joao II (1455-1495), an alliance with Prester john was not only a possibility but a necessity in the context of expansionist ambitions in which greed for gold became inextricably mixed up with the goal of recapturing jerusalem and spreading the Christian message.

This ideal undoubtedly had a strong influence on the arts and on the collective "cultural imagination". Even before the "discovery" of the sea route to India (which was not achieved until Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut in 1498, although after 1486 it was considered only a matter of time), the mere expectation of such a great feat was enough to provoke a heightened tension in the final phase of the Gothic in Portugal. The situation in the arts at the end of the fifteenth century, with its experiments in the incorporation of the exotic (through such hybrid forms as Afro-Portuguese ivory art) and the lavish ornamentation favoured by the artists at court, could be seen as a preparation for Vasco da Gama's "encounter with history". …

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