A painting of the patron saint of Lisbon has returned to Portugal. Organized around a loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, O Frei Carlos da América, a small exhibition now on view at Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, is acquainting museumgoers here in Lisbon with the artwork of a Renaissance monk-painter.
Born in Flanders, Frei Carlos joined a convent outside Évora, Portugal, where he ran a painting workshop making delicately colored scenes for the Hieronymites, a hermetic Christian order that took hold across the Iberian Peninsula. Working in oil paint on oak panels, the subtly elongated figures here, with robes falling in angular folds, point to Northern Renaissance artistic training. Portugal and Flanders were active trading partners in the 16th century and José Alberto Seabra Carvalho, Deputy Director of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, refers to the monk’s artworks as “Luso-Flemish painting.”
A small museum gallery decorated with a painted baroque ceiling is the setting for this exhibition featuring just four artworks from the monk’s workshop and one piece by a follower of Frei Carlos. The Met’s Saint Vincent, Patron Saint of Lisbon, dated 1520-1530, is a full-length portrait of Saint Vincent of Saragossa, a palm branch in the martyr’s left hand and a ship in his right. A book with gold leaf pages and metal clasps is tucked under the saint’s arm and beneath an ornately patterned garment, a pale blue robe is beautifully painted. A bleached out light pervades this scene, the landscape in the background made from cool blues and mint greens. A snail crawls over a rock in the lower left corner.
Like the portrait of St. Vincent, St. Anthony and Child is a vertical painting. But here the palette is virtually a monochrome in browns, a few areas of reds and blues carefully placed. The interior in this painting, featuring a kneeling saint, is a marvel of perspective- a desk with an open compartment, arches, tile floor, a foreshortened window shutter and a jumble of books are described with complicated, multiple vanishing points.
Also on view, a three-panel altarpiece and a portrait of St. Blaise with a mitre and a gold and glass staff attest to the artistic ambition of Frei Carlos. A video of infrared reflectography reveals the monk’s meticulous under-drawing, tonality mapped out with hatching marks.
For many museum visitors, this show will be a welcome introduction to the Renaissance artist living a hermetic life in Portugal’s Alentejo region. Working in a convent, Frei Carlos combined Flemish painting techniques with soft, Iberian light. The Convento do Espinheiro, where Frei Carlos made these works, is now the Convento Do Espinheiro, A Luxury Collection Hotel & Spa. There you can play tennis, go for a swim and order a “detoxifying algae wrap.” Just be sure to stop by the Frei Carlos Meeting Room.
O Frei Carlos da América: Investigação e Crítica, on view through September 15, 2013. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Rua das Janelas Verdes, 1249 - 017 Lisbon, Portugal, www.museudearteantiga.pt
Convento do Espinheiro Hotel & Spa, 7002-502 Évora, Portugal, www.conventodoespinheiro.com
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com