Lisbon. 9 am. The air is crisp and clear. We walk down the Rua da Oliveira ao Carmo, and there it is:
the ruins of the Convento do Carmo.
With naked arches and piers pointing loose to the sky, this medieval building looks like scattered ribs. The vaulted roofs of the nave were completely destroyed by the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. It is believed to have collapsed upon its worshippers, since it was All Saints’ Day when the earthquake struck.
We wander down the open aisle, admiring shattered pillars, engraved columns, tombstones and monastic statuary of this medieval gothic church. I am not prepared for what happens next: we enter the archaeological museum, located in the main chapel. I pass a couple of recumbent statues, and suddenly stop in my tracks, facing a 14th-century tombstone.
A sculptured figure, entirely covered in feathers, with 6 wings, is spreading its arms and flying away. The dream to fly, to escape our own earthly dimension, our reality, is one of human’s oldest fantasies. But how this theme is depicted here is unlike anything I have ever seen in funeral sculpture. There is nothing gory about it. The Seraphic figure is smiling. It is in good company too, surrounded by stars and angels.
I circle around the whole monument, literally gaping at the complex iconography. I need to know what this piece of art is all about. A tiny notice reveals that this is the tomb of King D. Fernando I (1345-1383), hence leaving me with more questions than answers.
Up close, the high-relief details are too many to narrate. I could write a bible about it. The side panels feature shields bearing different coat of arms, one of which shows a feathered wing holding a sword. Deeply carved, above the shields, appear various busts of religious and secular figures. Supporting the shields are “green men”: hybrid figures, always with a vegetal element, for example leaves that sprout from their ears. Along the “voids” of the ark: one can recognize creatures from the underworld: a two-headed dragon, two bird-like animals with intertwined heads facing each other, a winged centaur with a warrior shield, and many stunning anthropomorphic figures.
That’s when I detect the mysterious prisoner, probably an alchemist or a physician, possibly a Jew (pointy hat), performing his obscure science in his secret chamber. He might be holding the Philosopher’s Stone. If you look closely, you see that the pointy hat is actually the sole piece of clothing he’s wearing. So he’s almost naked, barefoot, and imprisoned! A rope is tied to his neck. And the rope end is tied to a heavy counterweight. Behind the prisoner, the sculptor chiseled a whole laboratory with jars, vases and hourglasses. These are all alchemist symbols, highlighting our frail and short existence on earth and mankind’s oldest dream: to live forever.
But what does the imprisoned alchemist or medic have to do with D. Fernando? Back in the apartment we are renting in Lisbon, I read about the king’s death. Surprise: he was poisoned! Is he denouncing his murderer on his tombstone? Or condemning ill practice of the obscure arts?
King D. Fernando I’s tombstone is a promising writing material. Maybe because there is a story lurking behind those carvings. Maybe… What I do know is that I’ve completely fallen in love with the artwork. I like it so much that even the old convent’s library – showcased in the room next to the tombstone’s – couldn’t take my thoughts off it. Nor the three mummies, which Mei fell in love with: one battered Egyptian mummy, and two 16th-century Peruvian mummies, preciously kept behind glass cases.
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