An amazing discovery has been made in Tavira where a section of the Santa Maria do Castelo church has been discovered after being hidden for around 200 years.
The veiled structure was meant to be used to show churchgoers the sacramental bread. But as Lusa news agency points out, “it never served this purpose, as it was abandoned before being completed and covered”.
For two centuries, it remained hidden behind a display case with a statue of Santa Maria, the church’s patron saint.
The hidden section was finally discovered at the end of October when renovation work began at the church, which has the protected status of “national monument”.
Padre Miguel Neto, the parish priest, explained that it was the “peculiarities and symbols” inscribed on the ceiling of a small and dark room that caught their eye.
“This discovery came as a result of preparation work carried out before the start of the actual renovation project,” said Padre Neto. “And there will probably be other discoveries from here on out.”
The structure, located behind the altarpiece in the apse, is said to be a small compartment with a throne where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. Its ceiling is painted with symbols alluding to the cult of the Eucharist – such as bunches of grapes and wheat, which symbolise wine and bread – as well as the inscription of the word ‘God’ in Hebrew.
The hidden room can be accessed through a door which is almost always locked, followed by a small staircase.
Art historian Daniel Santana believes the structure was initially meant to be a Eucharistic altarpiece, an idea which “was abandoned while still in progress, as sections of the painting are unfinished”.
“It was a surprise, as it is a find that will give us more information about the origin of this altarpiece and the church’s own history,” he said, adding that the new discovery will also raise some new questions.
In fact, the church’s altarpiece is said to be one of the few to use the trompe-l’oeil technique – which uses realistic imagery to create the illusion of objects in three dimensions such as marble columns and other decorative elements. It is attributed to Algarvian painter Joaquim Rasquinho.
“The throne and walls have ornamental paintings with shades and shapes that are very characteristic of the time. We are talking about the end of the 18th century, when the late Baroque and Rococo were dominant styles,” said the historian, adding that the church, however, already had a neoclassic inspiration.
The uncovered structure will now undergo renovations. According to conservator-restorer Marta Pereira, the space is in “surprisingly” good condition, which should make its conservation relatively easy.
Said the expert from ArtGilão – a local company created by the churches of Tavira to recover, safeguard and dynamise the town’s religious heritage – its polychrome is “well preserved” although the wood is in “very poor condition” due to damp and woodworm.
The priority will be to stop the decaying process, although some “chromatic reintegration” is planned to try to “unify the painting and make it appealing to the eye”.
Igreja Matriz de Santa Maria do Castelo was founded by the Order of Santiago after Tavira was taken back from the Moors in 1241. It has undergone several renovation projects over the centuries, having been almost fully rebuilt in 1790 after the 1755 earthquake.
By MICHAEL BRUXO