The 16th-century chasuble of the Núcleo Museológico de Arte Sacra (Religious Art Museum Unit)
In August 2020, a set of objects that had been in the custody of the Diocese of Beja for some years and belonged to the Vestry Board of the Parish Church of the Parish of Mértola was deposited at the Museum of Mértola. The 2 custodies from the 17th century and an ex-voto to the Lord of Calvary from the 19th century were immediately integrated into the exhibition of Núcleo Museológico de Arte Sacra. This set included a chasuble, which was kept in reserve because it needed a specific exhibition stand with adequate conditions for its conservation. The chasuble is now included in the permanent Sacred Art exhibition, in the main part of the Church of Misericórdia, in a specially-built display case, which meets all the conservation and security requirements, but also gives this piece the emphasis it deserves.
“Vestments have always been seen as pieces of great value, either because of the rich materials used or because they were the result of the joint efforts of craftsmen and artists, which gave them an inestimable value. For this very reason, unique pieces of considerable beauty have come down to us. The fact that they were only used at certain times of the year (the so-called liturgical times) also contributed to this, as well as the fact that they deserved special care as pieces associated with divine worship”.
The chasuble of the Mother Church of Mértola, dating from the 16th century, is an embroidered crimson velvet piece. The decorative motifs on the linen base, embroidered in gold, are executed in cut silk outlined by a fine blue thread representing, in addition to plant elements, centaurs, a unicorn and other animals such as birds and rabbits. ‘Linen is used as a base and silk is used for the ornaments applied on the gold embroidered background. The colour (yellow-gold) is typical of this century, and is often found in 16th century tapestries, bedspreads and embroidery. Also from this period is the galloon that decorates the ‘sebasto’, as suggested by the fringe and the carnet that finish it, since the decoration of the fabrics by applying other 16th-century fabrics (painted, woven, made by applying other fabrics or embroidered) was often complemented by fringes or trimmings/tassels”.
“The mythological representation in the ‘sebasto’ combines typically Western classical themes with Eastern elements. Observing the scene from an iconographic point of view, it is possible to attribute two meanings to it which, although distinct, complement each other. The unicorn ‘is both associated with the pagan purifying gift, chastity and the incarnation of Christ, purely Christian visions. As for the centaurs, composite figures, (…) they reveal unbridled, even evil instincts. (…) The struggle between Good and Evil, spirit and matter, spiritual and temporal power – a theme that has always dominated Western and Eastern civilisations. The centaurs seek the unicorn, so they are linked around it, which stands out as the central axis of the composition. Sharing the mythological space, we find the rabbit/hare (symbol of love and lust, regarded as a fertile animal), and the bird, elements that make us return to reality. For this reason, they are called mixed decorative elements, as they bring the fantasy world closer to the real world.” (…) so it is not unreasonable to consider the ‘sebasto’ not only historical, but also symbolic. As a whole, it may be stated that it has a distinct meaning from its apparent representation, showing a symbol – the unicorn – in a prominent and dominant place” .
“The decorative plant motifs, although simple, form clusters. On the Mértola chasule, we see phytomorphic motifs such as continuous winding stems (predominant in Indo-Portuguese art), which undulate, releasing one or another ornament, one or another leaf to opposite sides. The lotus flower motif, which appears throughout the whole of the 16th century, is said to have been worked in the shape of an open pomegranate, with contorted leaves. A possible stylisation of this flower can be found on the chasuble, if one refers to figurations – of the type found on Italian and Spanish velvets – contorted leaves, the leafy stem and bulbous flowers are also present.”
(…) “The questions remain open: the chasuble of the Mother Church of Mértola is not a typical 16th-century chasuble, and the ‘sebasto’ is in itself an exception. Therefore, it is hypothesised that it might have been reused from another piece of a pelmet, a valance or even an Indo-Portuguese bedspread” .
‘However, it is difficult to understand why this is not a chasuble that follows the models of its time. But it is also true that it is much more affordable to create a chasuble by adapting or adjusting existing pieces, than to order an original piece from an embroiderer or a chasuble maker. The use of patchwork and re-adaptation is a practice that would have been out of place in the 16th century.’ The religiosity of the 16th century would, in principle, force obedience to the canons of the Church. However, the craftsmen’s access to new, rich materials, together with their prodigious Renaissance imagination, gave rise to works that were difficult to classify. The chasuble of the Mother Church of Mértola may be one of them. Although it does not reflect the pompous worship of the centres of Catholicism, it represents, in some way, the richness of 16th-century ornamental art. Its main value is that it has resisted the squandering or indifference of men over the centuries’.
The Municipality of Mértola and the Museum of Mértola would like to thank the Diocese of Beja, the Parish Church of Mértola and Father António Marques de Sousa for returning these objects to their original location. We would like to invite the population of Mértola to (re)visit the Sacred Art unit and enjoy this Heritage which belongs to all of us.
1 Chasuble – Religious vestment that the priest places over the alb for the celebration of Mass.
2 Vestment – Robe used by the Priest in religious ceremonies. The alb is a kind of white tunic with sleeves used in the first centuries of the Middle Ages by laymen and clerics, but that, after the 13th century, became only the priestly garment under the chasuble.
3 NOGUEIRA, Magda and VALENTINA, Silva, ‘A Casula quinhentista da Matriz de Mértola’, Arqueologia Medieval 3, Porto, Ed. Afrontamento, 1993, p. 233.
4 Galloon – Braided strip of silver, gold, silk, cotton, linen, used specifically to trim or decorate.
5 ‘Sebasto’ – Strip of cloth in a different colour to decorate vestments and other clothing. Adornment of dresses, vestments.
6 NOGUEIRA, Magda and VALENTINA, Silva, ‘A Casula quinhentista da Matriz de Mértola’, Arqueologia Medieval 3, Porto, Ed. Afrontamento, 1993, p. 235.
7 It is a mythological animal that resembles a horse, usually white, with a spiralling horn. Its image is associated with purity and strength.
8 NOGUEIRA, Magda and VALENTINA, Silva, ‘A Casula quinhentista da Matriz de Mértola’, Arqueologia Medieval 3, Porto, Ed. Afrontamento, 1993, p. 235.
9 Pelmet – Long strip of cloth that embroiders the upper part of a curtain.
10 Valance – Lower part of an altar piece, composed by one or several panels, forming a band, generally with some figures connected to the general theme of the composition, or representing a special subject.
11 NOGUEIRA, Magda and VALENTINA, Silva, ‘A Casula quinhentista da Matriz de Mértola’, Arqueologia Medieval 3, Porto, Ed. Afrontamento, 1993, p. 235.
12 IBIDEM, p. 236.