Gilded woodcarving in Portugal is, along with the tile, one of its most original and rich artistic expressions. It is usually used in the internal decoration of churches and cathedrals, but also as part of the decoration of noble halls in palaces and large public buildings, there existing an impressive collection of altarpieces in Portuguese churches. Starting during the Gothic era, it assumes nationalistic character in the course of the seventeenth century and the maximum splendour in the reign of King D. João V. In the nineteenth century it loses its meaning, becoming a copy of past models to, finally, disappear with the end of the revival era. Gilded woodcarving is a very impressive and quite simple way to turn a plain space into a place of luxury and ostentation, because wood is easily carved and covered with gold leaf. The result is a cheaper and more impressive work than that achieved with other technically more demanding types of decoration, such as sculpture or painting, and it reflects the taste of the time. The cost of the decorative structure is cheaper than the price to pay for the same type of work in another kind of decoration (except for the tile) because the amount of gold required is relatively small. It does not call for an artist with the specific training of a sculptor or a painter (however, most of their work turns out to have the same quality), and the final result is surprisingly good and reasonably priced. The forms are copied and adapted from decorative architecture and inspiration taken from the books circulating in all of Europe, that disseminated the news from the art world, but during the seventeenth century a typically Portuguese vocabulary is developed. After being transported to the empire, it adapts to the local traditions and artists capacities, as is visible in Brazil or in India – mainly in Goa. It is very common for woodcarving artists to take commissions from regional orders to guarantee the activity of their workshop, sometimes making several related works in a specific geographical area. Truly remarkable examples have reached us, confirming the prestige of the creators of several magnificent altarpieces from northern to southern Portugal. There are also many examples in colour, white or natural wood, but without the visual impact of the gilded ones. The golden altar was almost magic to the senses, giving an idea of holiness and richness unattainable in normal people’s lives. Their association with painting or the tile allows more complex decorative programs thus increasing or decreasing the price of the contract.
The evolution of the woodwork and gilded woodcarving in Portugal has had a very interesting journey. It starts during the Gothic period following architectural models, taken mainly from sculpture and goldsmithery, using the decorative vocabulary of the style. Gothic arches, pinnacles, columns, etc., are associated with sculpture or painting, without standing on their own as will later be done. It’s a wooden structure, with the gold carving kept for the architectural part of the “machine” and leaving the rest of the elements either in plain wood or covered with colour. In spite of the small number of altar-pieces which have reached our days, the overwhelming majority was replaced during the Baroque, it is known that they followed the international taste, such as the main altarpiece in the old Cathedral of Coimbra (the only city in Portugal boasting 2 cathedrals).
The Manueline, too, follows the vocabulary of architecture, using mainly the portal structure, giving great importance to the heraldic, armillary sphere, Cross of Christ, and some sculpted naturalistic elements. The main examples, altarpiece and Choir Stalls, from Convent of the Order of Christ in Tomar and Monastery of Alcobaça, have disappeared, but there remains the monumental Choir Stalls from Santa Cruz Monastery in Coimbra. The wood gilt follows the structure of northern Europe, fixed with the Portuguese aesthetic at the time, made by the Flemish master Machim.
The Renaissance continues to follow the architectural decoration, but there is no longer the issue of using golden carving, associating painting and sculpture, and following the classic imaginary, widely known from books of the time. Again the carved decoration in wood is very close to the intended stone forms, visible in portals, tombs or even in goldsmithery. The existence of a large altarpiece in stone or painting did not allow the development of the woodcarving as an autonomous form of expression, keeping it as a decorative art, in support of more erudite expressions. It is necessary to wait for Mannerism to develop the necessary conditions for autonomous gilded woodcarving to arise.
A number of factors, including some of economic order, leads to the expansion of the gilt woodcarving during the Mannerist era. The economic crisis at the end of the sixteenth century, the growing importance of the Jesuits, the loss of the spices trade and, finally, the death of the king D. Sebastião in Alcácer Quibir, cause a gradual reduction of the economical resources and therefore the reduction of major programmes of expensive painting and sculpture, because they are considered a major art, and more subject to the rules imposed by the Council of Trent. Woodcarving was the perfect decorative type for a time torn between the economic crisis and the crisis of values, a consequence of the rupture between Catholics and Protestants. In spite of being cheaper, it is dazzling - giving the idea of wealth - and adapts itself perfectly to all directives of the Catholic Church, while essentially exploring the architectural form. The altarpiece becomes a composition of architectural character, often designed by architects and, subsequently, adapted by the artist to his (more or less) technical skill, covered in gold leaf, receiving some painting and / or sculpture (certainly less than would be necessary without the woodcarving), completely covering the wall it was designed for and operating, basically, as a luxurious frame. However, it was then that woodcarving gained autonomy and left the simple task of framing works of art. These were placed in niches, assuming a major role. The set is built into floors, like buildings, with several kinds of solutions. There is also the possibility of different combinations, like triumph arches with sculpture, usually in the choir, allowing the space behind the altarpiece, also very decorated, to be seen. Among this type of altarpieces, are the fundamental and monumental altarpieces of the choir at Church of São Domingos de Benfica and Church of Luz in Carnide - Lisbon. If the altarpiece of Benfica is the absolute erudite example, with elegant classical forms and few paintings, keeping the gilded woodcarvings as a central element of the structure, the Carnide altarpiece, executed by Francisco Venegas with the collaboration of Diogo Teixeira, is the example of the splendour of painting, without reducing the artistic value of woodcarving. The main altarpiece of Church of São Roque in Lisbon belongs to another group, typical of the Jesuitical churches (São Roque in Lisbon is the head of the series for the whole Portuguese empire) , characterized by its high quality decoration, well structured lines, with clear classical references, several floors, columns and well compartmentalised spaces. The scheme will be much repeated in Jesuitical churches. The Cathedral of Portalegre exhibits an important variation of this scheme. The painting altarpiece is framed by an elegantly classic set of columns, reliefs and sculpture, causing an effect opposite to the other. There are numerous important altarpieces in Portugal (mainly), Brazil and Goa worthy of reference.
With the end of 60 years of forced Iberian unification, under the government of the Spanish kings Felipe II, III and IV, the restoration of the independence in 1640, and subsequent war, woodcarving inPortugal is forced to detach itself from the Spanish baroque models. At difficult economic times, woodcarving gains in meaning, as sculpture and painting are drastically reduced in the altarpieces, leaving behind the classical inspiration models, taken from the international books arriving to the country through Spain (consequently Spanish), and trying to develop a national approach. It turns to Portuguese art and produces the "national style". The inspiration is clearly taken from Romanesque and Manueline portals. The set of archivolts reminds you of the first while the decoration has much in common with the naturalistic Manueline style. The altarpiece is like a powerful machine, built with concentric archivolts, classical spiral columns (pseudo salomonic), platforms and throne. The decoration is very naturalistic, based mainly on leaves, disperse, and covering, the whole set, in perfect harmony with angels and birds. The altarpiece is undoubtedly Baroque, although presenting characteristics clearly opposed to the Spanish models. Again, at a time of economic difficulty, gilded woodcarving gives an image of splendour, in a economical way, contributing to the Portuguese cause.
It is not in vain that King D. João V is called the Magnificent. Iberian peace, and the discovery of the Brazilian gold and diamonds make Portugal, suddenly, the richest country in Europe, allowing for the full development of the international Baroque art in all forms. Gilded woodcarving is no exception. In the reign of King D. João V the Portuguese taste is adjusted to international models and takes a particular shape baptised "Joanina." It converts the archivolts to trim cut, incorporates sculpture-like angels, garlands, vegetal-like forms, birds and architectural elements. It keeps the spiral columns, gallery and throne. The decor is suggestive of sculpture and spreads throughout the church, reaching the extreme of literally covering every available surface - vaults, walls, columns, arches and pulpits. There are notable examples scattered from north to south, Portugal, but the main ones are, undoubtedly, the Church of São Francisco (Porto) and Church of Santa Clara (Porto). Both were completely covered in baroque gilded woodcarving giving it the look of a golden cave. In spite of Santa Clara being more elegant, São Francisco, a Gothic building, is surprising, boasting a better use of the space. It is also important to know that the huge list of artistic patrimony in Porto includes a large number of absolutely remarkable churches. The most significant examples are the following for their importance and quality:
It’s important to make a reference to the guild woodcarving pomp carriages of the king D. João V, among which are the three baroque carriages of the embassy from D. João V to the pope, now in the Museu Nacional dos Coches The National Carriages Museum, in Lisbon. Absolutely extraordinary. It’s a set of three carriages full of fantasy, like a baroque ideal vision.
The succession of King D. JoãoV is guaranteed by his son King D. José. The abundance of resources keeps sustaining the politics of splendour, based in the diamonds and precious metals from Brazil, allowing for an architecture of luxury and modern decorative programmes, after Rococo. In spite of it being a time of splendour, Portugal survives the worst natural catastrophe in the history of the country and one of the worst in Europe - the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.
The Rococo gilded woodcarving is subdivided into several parallel currents or regional styles, allowing it to maintain a stamp of variety and originality, from north to south, Portugal. It is difficult to classify all these variations, because all are clearly Rococo but, based on the most used stylistic elements, it is possible to define the main ones. Shells, angels, volutes, leaves, puti, columns, spiral columns (pseudo-salomonic), painted materials and a lot of gold are its formal vocabulary.
So there are two major locations in the area of Lisbon. Some works are clearly around the royal house, characterized by elegance and the quality of the decorative motives. There remain some influences from the Joanina woodcarving, but with the Rococo vocabulary, and several influences from the famous chapel of São João Baptista in the Church of São Roque in Lisbon, full of semi precious stones, with an echo in the painted materials. Among the abundant production, the following are the main orientation lines in the Lisbon influence area:
At the same time, also in Lisbon, the pombaline churches develop a different type of altar. At this point, the spirit of the earthquake reconstruction, which consists of prefabricated materials produced outside the cit, and assembled on-site, is present. These buildings have internal Rococo decoration, painted materials in wood and plaster, gallery and throne in the main altar , columns, architectural forms, a few golden shapes, some painting (the work of [[Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho] ] is the most important) and sculpture. The spaces are pleasant, full of light and, despite their pre-manufactured construction, completely Rococo. Among all the constructions the following buildings are of particular importance: Church of Santo António of Lisbon (built in the birth place of St. Anthony), Church of the Encarnação, Magdalena Church, Basilica of Nossa Senhora dos Mártires and many others. Keeping the aesthetic decorative vocabulary and pre-fabricated elements, the desire for originality is quite obvious. In less destroyed buildings, the aim was to harmonise the pombaline shapes with existing decor.
Finally, mainly in Lisbon, we can see the profane French influence current present in the rest of Europe. It is characterized by sumptuous decorations in gilded woodcarvings and/or plaster simulating materials, normally inside palaces, very popular among the aristocracy, in the French fashion, of which the main example is the throne room of the Queluz National Palace.
In the area of Coimbra there is a regional school started with the main altarpiece of the Church of the Monastery of Santa Cruz. Structures are undoubtedly Rococo, with its own unique characteristics, where the pombaline influence is obvious in painted marbles, columns, gallery and throne. At the same time, it still reminds you of the "Joanina" woodkarving, mainly in the upper conclusion, with cute fronton and angel-like sculptures.
The north of Portugal, develops an impressive list of Rococo altarpieces, with unique characteristics, because of the fusion achieved between Rococo and the splendour of the earlier baroque, called “Joanino”, mastered with quality and originality. It is possible to typify it this way: completely golden, associated with painting or sculpture, constructed with the entire vocabulary of the style and without the references typical of Lisbon.
Around Braga, thanks to the work of André Soares there comes up another regional school of high quality and variety, characterized by the fusion of colour and gold, in altarpieces of great elegance and quality. Sometimes it already shows small notes denoting classic influences or announcing the approaching Classicism. In northern Portugal there stand out, among many others, the following works:
In southern Portugal the woodcarving is less common because of the abundance of marbles which called for no need to develop timber structures imitating marble.. Yet there are notable examples in the Alentejo and Algarve, which are different from the rest of the country. This originality is particularly visible in Évora, in
It is fundamental to make a reference to the woodcarving in the carriages of apparatus of this time. The reign of Queen D. Maria I produces the latest major examples of carriages of apparatus, following the Baroque pomp tradition, but Rococo, currently in the Museu Nacional dos Coches The National Carriages Museum, in Lisbon.
Neoclassicism its the end of the high quality woodcarving in Portugal. Because the number of churches built was close to zero at the time, the examples are very rare. They follow the classical Roman models and, because it was fundamental to respect the classic architectural orders, they lose their originality. Still there are some noteworthy examples such as the Church of Ordem Terceira de São Francisco and the altar of Church of Lapa (Porto), among others. Indeed Portugal did not really feel the lack of Neoclassicism because the pombaline was very close. Another important factor is the escape of real family to Brazil, during the French invasion, where the country (it was the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil) will concentrate most artistic investments. Seventeen years later, when the King returns, Romanticism was already installed and gilded woodcarving had lost all its meaning and originality, overwhelmed by the revivalist fashion.