St Peter - Vasco Fernandes

Besides Portugal’s intrepid, ground-breaking explorer of the same name, another famous Vasco born in the 15th century was the master painter Vasco Fernandes, aka Grão Vasco (or Vasco the Great).

A notable contemporary of the famed navigator, Fernandes was considered one of the most outstanding artists operating in the country during his lifetime, but very little is known about the life of this extremely talented Portuguese painter, except that he was born in or very close to the city of Viseu around 1475.

His style was heavily influenced by some of the most prominent Flemish masters, most notably Jan Van Eyck (who visited Portugal on a diplomatic mission in 1428), but certain elements of his work are distinctly his own, such as the realism of portraiture and richness of colour.

Housed in the old Bishop’s palace known as the Paço dos Três Escalões (Palace of the Three Steps), the amazing Grão Vasco Museum (Museu de Grão Vasco) is the best place to appreciate the work of this artistic genius, with many of his most famous paintings forming the main part of this magnificent collection.

Here you can see his monumental painting of St Peter on His Throne (1530-1535), which portrays the apostle (whose robes are magnificently treated) as a somewhat stern but human Renaissance bishop with a Portuguese face.

Originally intended for the nearby cathedral, the principal focus of his 14 Life of Christ panels (1501-1506) is the Adoration of the Magi in which the African king Balthazar is depicted as a Tupi Indian wearing a feathered headdress and pantaloons from recently-discovered Brazil – the first ever representation of the figure of the Indian in western art.

All the scenes are painted with sincerity (an expressive talent very rare in the artwork of his day) and he demonstrates all the virtues of a landscape painter by integrating distance into his compositions.

What to do in central Portugal

Another major highlight is the Calvary in which the body of Christ, swollen in his agony, rises amidst the dense spears of the rough crowd of soldiers, with the faces of the holy women disfigured by paroxysms of grief.

One of central Portugal’s greatest art treasures, the museum (indicated on the Google map below) honours many of the other artists from the world-famous Viseu School, chiefly Gaspar Vaz (Grão Vasco’s closest collaborator) and António Vaz (Gaspar’s son). And the visitor should not let the glory of the paintings deflect from the quality of the sculptures which are equally impressive.

Other important examples of Grão Vasco’s work can be found all over the country, from north to south, most often in a prime setting such as a cathedral, national museum or ancient church.

At the exquisite parish church of Freixo de Espada à Cinta in north-eastern Portugal, look out for the fine retable featuring sixteen superb panels that many experts attribute to Grão Vasco, featuring The Annunciation and Judas’ Kiss.

Furthermore, the artist’s five stunning works at the municipal museum of Lamego are some of the most excellent paintings ever produced in Portugal. Forming part of a retable of 20 panels (15 of which were subsequently lost), they are Flemish in style and have many highlights, most notably the Creation of the Animals depicting God blessing his creatures, including an immaculate unicorn pawing the earth for the first time.

Close to Viseu, the 12th-century church at São João de Tarouca (the first Cistercian monastery ever built in Portugal) features an impressive Grão Vasco painting hanging above the third altar to the right of the nave.

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