Art: from the Sublime to the Deranged

My final cultural outing in Lisbon was to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (National Museum of Ancient Art), a treasure trove packed with Portuguese and European art produced between the 12th and 19th centuries. Among the various masterpieces discussed on the day with my Portuguese conversation group, for me two stood out for the quality of their artwork and their striking contrast in styles.
The Panels of Saint Vincent by Nuno Gonçalves consists of six panels portraying scenes from the veneration of Saint Vincent of Saragossa, a deacon who was martyred during the Roman persecution of Christians in early fourth century Spain. It is widely regarded as the greatest work of pre-modern Portuguese art, yet those very scholars that acclaim it cannot agree on fundamental aspects such as the precise events being portrayed, the symbolism behind the work, the identity of the sixty figures depicted in it, or the date it was painted. Even the identity of the figure dressed in black and wearing a chaperon hat in the third panel, commonly named as Prince Henry the Navigator, the driving force behind the early Portuguese voyages of discovery, is far from certain.
The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch depicts the supernatural temptations endured by Saint Anthony the Great during his pilgrimage through the desert in third century Egypt, including scenes of demons manifesting themselves in some of the weirdest forms I have ever seen in art. It reminded me of Salvador Dali’s most exquisitely deranged paintings, yet Bosch’s work was completed some 400 years before the surrealist movement even started. Perhaps both Bosch and Saint Anthony would have appreciated Dali’s assertion that “There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”

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