Magnificent Art in Lisbon – Part Two: European and Eastern Art

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…continued from Part One…

This part of the series on the National Museum of Ancient Art will focus on the European works by some well known, and some less well known, painters – before moving onto art from those countries that Portugal traded with in the East.

Spanish Works


There are a few Italian paintings in the museum, as well as some lovely statues, make up an interesting selection of art.

Dutch and Flemish Works

Along with some great paintings, there were some fine tapestries.

For many, the star of the museum collection is the weird and wonderful Bosch telling the tale of St Anthony Abbot in the way that only he knew.  The torments of the 3rd century saint are depicted in baffling ways.  Like with most of Bosch’s work, there is a lot of speculation about the meaning of the symbolism, which clearly I can’t go into here.  If you’re interested in this work, I’ve also found this awesome site, where you can look in detail at the painting (and in much better quality than my pictures):

I know not everyone likes Bosch because, well, he is distinctly odd.  I have come to really admire him over the years, not just because I think he’s amusing, but because he was a really amazing painter – I mean, just by looking at the outside shutters you can tell how skilled he was.  He’s basically Hans Memling in Monty Python mode.  Personally, that works for me, not least because you end up by getting unusual glimpses into the world of Bosch, like the ice-skates of the demon-bird-in-the-funnel-hat below, or the walking-frame of the man-with-a-nose-and-a-red-gown a few below.

The shutters are beautiful.  They are painted in grisaille, that is, in greys (a painted effect of black and white, if you will) and again they show the skill of Bosch as a painter.  Traditionally, churches would cover their paintings, or close their altarpieces, in the week before Easter.  On these shutters, the scenes of the Arrest of Christ and Christ Carrying the Cross are both themes that are relevant for Lent and Easter.

German Works


English Works

Eastern Art

One of the most remarkable aspects of Portuguese history is the fact that they were able to establish trade links with the Far East.  Considering the dangers of sailing in the 15th century, it is truly astonishing that they got a foothold in India, China and Japan, where they not only traded, but were able to establish outposts.  I cover some of this ground on my post on the Oriental Museum and Maritime Museum.


The primary purpose of the Portuguese explorers was to establish trade routes and make lots of money.  They also had the advantage of having been granted a trade monopoly for lands newly ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese, as backed up by two papal bulls.  The first area they explored was the coast of Africa – the intention was to make it to India so that they could benefit from the spice trade, but in the meantime they inched along Africa, developing relationships with local leaders, and engaged in the slave and gold trade.

The Portuguese were also the first Europeans to deal with the Kingdom of Benin, an area of modern Nigeria.  In 1485, the Portuguese developed a trading relationship based on getting products like ivory, pepper and palm oil from Benin in exchange for guns and manilla (torque-like objects that were used as money: for an example see my post from Lausanne).  The relationship was such that by the early 16th century, there was an ambassador of Benin in Lisbon.  In return, Christian missionaries went to Benin City – where some people apparently continued to speak pidgin Portuguese in the late 19th century.

India and Goa

With Vasco da Gama rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Indian Ocean was opened up to the Portuguese in 1497, and through the help of local pilots, the ships reached Calicut in south-western India.  They found themselves in a positive situation: the ruler of Kochi and the leader of Calicut were rivals, and the Portuguese were seen as neutral allies of both.  Both kingdoms allowed the building of forts and factories and by 1505 their situation there was so cushy, the King of Portugal appointed Francisco de Almeida as the first Viceroy of India.

In 1510, the Portuguese conquered Goa, and used it as their capital in the East.  The second viceroy, Afonso de Albuquerque, set up a Portuguese mint there, and encouraged generally good relations with the locals.  The Portuguese settlers were encouraged to marry local women, and the Hindu temples were protected.

China and Macau

For the sake of preserving their trade, they battled it out with Indian Kingdoms, and, in order to help preserve what they had in India, they moved further east.  In 1511, Albuquerque captured Malacca in Malaysia, which had the largest spice market of the period.  From here, Portuguese trade out towards China became possible, and new horizons opened up for business.

Only the initial goodwill between the Chinese and Portuguese was short lived.  It was perhaps not a good move to have a prominent Portuguese explorer, Simão de Andrade, behaving like a moron and attacking Chinese ships and officials.  Portuguese men were killed in retaliation.  After many years of strained relations, the Chinese allowed the Portuguese to settle in Macau in 1557.


In 1571, the Portuguese founded the port of Nagasaki in Japan.  The Portuguese had first met the Japanese in 1542, but the interaction between the two cultures didn’t go well.  The Japanese did however see the benefit of various European developments like the arquebus, and refined sugar.  Plus the Portuguese could bring much valued Chinese goods, like silk and porcelain, which the Japanese were no longer able to acquire directly, due to the Emperor of China’s decree which prohibited trade.  This was in punishment for Japanese pirate raids on China, but clearly the Portuguese offered a way round the ban and gently used this to befriend the Japanese.

The wily Portuguese started to regulate trade to Japan.  A single carrack (a large ship, triple the size of a galleon) would go to Japan each year, loaded with valuables.  From 1557 till 1614 this so-called Nanban (southern barbarian) trade continued very successfully – but was stopped when the Japanese authorities became concerned that priests were being smuggled into the country.

The Museum of Ancient Art has some fascinating examples of Nanban art, that is the art produced by the Japanese which depicted foreigners.  There are three folding screens, byōbu, which are rendered in a traditional Japanese style, but which show the Portuguese carracks and traders – and the reaction of the locals to these strange looking fellows.  No, the Portuguese are not shown in a flattering light, with their big noses, and outfits which looks extremely heavy and out of place beside the light and elegant Japanese around them.  The level of detail is fascinating, giving some insight into the experience of the Portuguese – at least from the artistic viewpoint of Japanese artists.

So In Summary

Without doubt, the National Museum of Ancient Art is a remarkable place.  All the rooms combine to really show the rich artistic tradition of Portugal, while also demonstrating the extent of the buying power of the kings and churches: whether it was a della Robbia or a Bosch, they commissioned or bought some of the most extraordinary art in western Europe.  It is sad to remember that much of the art of Lisbon was destroyed by the earthquake of 1755, though this serves as a sombre reminder, also, of how lucky we are to see what’s survived.  From the statues to the paintings to the ivory Good Shepherd, there are lots of little treasures in this beautiful museum which will easily entertain anyone who enjoys exploring collections that don’t just contain ‘big names’.  It was a joy.

Further Information

The museum has its own website, which is available in English:  

The museum holds regular exhibitions, about which you can find out more from the website.

Annoyingly, and incredibly, we didn’t actually get to see every area of the museum.  We missed out on the section on jewellery, ceramics, gold and silver, as well as the galleries on Portuguese furniture.

How To Get There

The museum was not as easy to get to as I expected.  If you try and walk – like we did – from Rossio, then be prepared to want to die by the time you get there.  We had to walk because it was a public holiday so one of the buses wasn’t running, and the trams kept being full.  So as not to get lost, we walked along the railway which runs along to Belem.  Yeah, that was fun.  It took us over an hour.  Then, we had to climb up steps – sooo many steps – basically up a hill/mountain to get to the museum.  So I really recommend that you go by tram – the stop is Cais da Rocha.  You can find out more via the English version site of the transport people:

Also be aware that if you leave the museum towards the evening, when tourists are flocking back from Belem, you will have full trams bolting past you.  We waited for about 40 minutes for a tram – which we finally managed to board, we charged like angry bulls into the carriage, aided by a sweet Portuguese lady who was waiting with us, was equally fed up, and helped make space.  Bless her heart.


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