Monsaraz: the mystery of the fresco of the Good and the Bad Judge

There is a fresco in Monsaraz that holds a mystery and is unique in Portugal: the Good and Bad Judge is a work of art unequalled in Portugal and from which we got to know clues to its interpretation.   When in 1958 an intervention in the old City Hall of Monsaraz revealed a two-panel fresco, the discovery made the front pages of the newspapers. It was immediately realized that this was something exceptional, but whose real importance was only truly established when art historians looked at the find and gave their verdict: the theme of the fresco is not only unique in Portugal but also has a parallel with the allegory of good and bad government that exists in the Palazzo Pubblico of the Italian city of Siena.

The fresco of Monsaraz has been studied since then and has even gained a justified protagonism in the beautiful town of Alentejo, being the main piece of the Museu do Fresco, in the main square of the town.

The fresco is composed by two overlapping panels, the first representing the divine justice and the second the earthly justice. It is here that we find the good and the bad judge, in an allegory of the application of justice that has much to say.

The first mystery that the fresco presented to historians was its date of execution. The first to look into the matter considered it to be much earlier than later studies have shown. We are dealing with a piece from the end of the 15th century and today it is almost consensual to give it a precise date with a story inside. But we shall get to that in a moment.

The fresco theme is unique in Portugal
the Good and the Bad Judge

First, the description. At the top, we have Christ the Pantocrator in a divine doomsday scene from the apocalypse. In the bottom panel is depicted earthly justice and good and bad government. On the left we see the good judge, mimicking Christ’s posture and flanked by two angels. The good judge looks directly at the person who sees the fresco and with his finger points to the accuser. On the left side, the bad judge appears, with two faces and with the devil putting his hand on his shoulder and breaking the rod of justice. This judge is flanked by two figures. One corrupts him with money, the other with partridges, in a very used symbolism at that time.

Ana Paula Amendoeira tells us the other story behind the fresco. The historian and current regional director of Culture of the Alentejo told the fresco and its mysteries to the participants of the Terras sem Sombra Festival, who visited Monsaraz last weekend.

A fresco explained
Historian Ana Paula Amendoeira explains the fresco of the Good and the Bad Judge

And it is this history that allows today the researchers to point the year of 1498 or 1499 as the date of the execution of the fresco, having been its commissioner D. Jaime, 4th Duke of Bragança. But let us go back in time and characters. In 1483, D. João II reigned. His attempt to strengthen the Royal House led many nobles to rebel. Among them was D. Fernando II, the third Duke of Braganza and the King’s brother-in-law.

D. He was tried, sentenced to death and executed in Evora on 20 June 1483. The hearing where the sentence was passed – Ana Paula Amendoeira tells us – took place in a room that King John II had decorated with panels depicting the legend of Trajan’s justice.

Trajan, recalled the historian “was on his way to war when he was approached by a woman who asked him to do justice to a criminal. The Roman emperor told her that he would do so when he returned, but the woman told him that he might die and justice would not be done, so the trial took place right then and there. It turned out that the criminal was Trajan’s own son, and even so the emperor sentenced him to death.”

With the panels, King John II was showing what he was up to. Ferdinand II was not present at the hearing, but one of his representatives objected to the fact that the king was one of the 21 members of the court, since he was an interested party.

The story is known. Ferdinand was executed in Évora’s Giraldo Square, the estate of the House of Braganza reverted to the Crown and the Duke’s children, still children, were taken to Spain, where they grew up.

When Manuel took the throne, he annulled the sentence and returned lands and titles to the House of Bragança. Jaime, now an adult, returned to Portugal as Duke of Bragança and became one of the king’s favourites, so much so that he – already married but still without descendants – appointed him his heir.

Coat of arms of the House of Bragança with the royal coat of arms
The coat of arms is faded but it is the key to the story

This is what, according to Ana Paula Amendoeira, allows historians to advance the thesis that the fresco was painted between 1498 and 1499. Outside the enclosure that surrounds the two paintings in the fresco, already very faded, it is possible to see a coat of arms. This coat of arms was studied and it was concluded that it is from the House of Bragança but with the arms of the Kingdom of Portugal. It so happens that only in 1498 did the king give this privilege to the dukedom, when he made a trip to Seville and before the birth of his first son.

D. Jaime, the 4th Duke of Bragança, intended with this fresco to rehabilitate his father, remembering that justice is not always blind, and did it in the courtroom of Monsaraz, because it was the mayor of this town that took him to Spain at the end of the trial of Évora

The mystery is very close to being explained, but there are still unsolved questions that arise after having a physico-chemical reading of the fresco, which was given to the participants of the festival by Milene Gil, researcher of Project Hercules of the University of Évora.

This researcher stated that most of the representation of the Good and the Bad Judge was made while the mortar was still fresh, but that the same did not happen with the coat of arms. Could it have been painted later?

The story behind the Monsaraz fresco is today consensual, but more physical studies are needed. Until then, the mystery persists.

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