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    Members’ Reports

    Teresa Soley
    Center 41

    Teresa Soley

    The Politics of Death: A Social History of Renaissance Portuguese Tomb Sculpture 


    Tomb of Pedro de Meneses, First Count of Villa Real, and Wives, c. 1455–1460, limestone with traces of polychromy, Igreja de Santa Maria da Graça, Santarém. Author photograph

    Sculpted funerary monuments were among the most inventive and spectacular artworks produced in early modern Portugal. Despite their considerable artistic and historical value, aristocratic Portuguese tombs have rarely been the subject of sustained or monographic study, either individually or collectively. My project rectifies this lacuna by analyzing Portuguese tombs as a distinct genre of sculpture, re-situating these works within their broader European context.  

    Monuments of impressive scale and artistry, early modern Portuguese tombs were enduring yet inherently subjective memorials. In the early 15th century, patrons began to not only take advantage of tombs as vehicles for self-representation, but to exploit them as opportunities for self-promotion. Coinciding with the peak of Portugal’s imperial aspirations, 15th-century tombs featured formulaic but inventive sculptural programs that both memorialized and manipulated the public image of patrons, families, and factions. These calculated, performative exhibitions of status and political allegiance were often created in conjunction with other commissions, such as chronicles or dynastic pantheons, intended to augment the memory of the dead in the collective imagination of their viewers.  

    Building upon extensive fieldwork and archival research, my dissertation investigates tombs’ social, political, and artistic impact through visual, literary, and historical sources, exploring ideas of death and memory in Renaissance Portuguese society and elucidating the function of tombs as persuasive, as well as commemorative, objects. Revealing a dramatic shift in priorities from spiritual salvation to personal historicization, tombs from the early 15th century onward signaled the deceased person’s virtues by celebrating worldly accomplishments, military exploits, and courtly accolades. Increasingly elaborate and image-conscious monuments, such as the tomb of Count Pedro de Meneses (1370?–1437) in Santarém, evince a newfound sense of historical agency. Its epigraphy reveals the tomb’s transformation from prayer prompt to historical document, as royal chroniclers began to both author epitaphs and use them as source material for their histories. Functioning as selective portraits of the dead, tomb sculpture transformed into an inherently rhetorical, political, and artistic genre. The ecclesiastical settings of sepulchers, furthermore, afforded ambitious and reputationally concerned patrons additional visibility, moral validation, and narrative legitimacy. The impact of these monuments and their messages was heightened by the lack of a strong portraiture tradition in the plastic arts of early modern Portugal.  


    Teresa Soley with the Tomb of Diogo da Gama (1523, limestone), Convento de Cristo, Tomar. Photo: James Renn

    My dissertation establishes artistic conventions and identifies major commemorative trends by providing the first comprehensive analysis of Portuguese tombs created from about 1400 to 1600. While the relationship between these sculptures and their audiences (contemporary and future) has not received scholarly attention to date, documentary evidence and innovations in tomb design indicate that viewership was of paramount importance in the creation of funerary monuments. In particular, my study explores how 15th- and 16th-century patrons signaled virtue, status, and historical substance through the strategic use of space, form, iconography, and textual inscriptions. The Portuguese monarchy’s politicization of chivalry and its military fixation on Africa were two elements that clearly manifested themselves in sepulchral commissions and strongly influenced popular commemorative strategies. The nobility’s rhetorically sophisticated tombs, aiming to manipulate viewers’ perception of the dead, often exhibited chivalric imagery combined with lengthy passages of narrative text, symbolic botanical motifs, heraldic emblems, and stylized effigies. As part of my analysis of patronage and intent, I chart the increasing emphasis on tomb monuments as status markers within the highest echelons of court society. One identified phenomenon is the emergence of “hagiographic tombs”—costly and impressive funerary monuments commissioned for a patron’s illustrious ancestors or historically significant predecessors in a bid for prestige by association. Closely associated with the rule of King Manuel I (r. 1495–1521), who commissioned the 1518–1522 construction of new tombs for the venerated first and second kings of Portugal, this practice created an image of legitimacy and continuity—in King Manuel I’s case, to reinforce his tenuous claim to the throne.  

    Ultimately, this project overcomes long-standing obstacles of language and access with the aim of integrating Portuguese art into the artistic milieu of early modern Europe on the cusp of global colonial expansion. Incorporating recent historical scholarship and technical studies with the results of my fieldwork in churches, monasteries, museums, and archives across Portugal, my dissertation sheds new light on the complex, mnemonic function of tomb sculpture within aristocratic Portuguese society. Finally, by studying these works in relation to broader issues of patronage, materiality, representation, and reception, my research reorients the study of Renaissance sculpture by contributing to a growing body of scholarship offering a more complete narrative of the arts of early modern Europe. 

    [Columbia University]  
    Samuel H. Kress Fellow, 2019–2021 

    Following her fellowship, Teresa Soley will continue her research in Portugal and complete her dissertation at Columbia University in 2022.  

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