The history of Portuguese painting in the 15th century is dominated by one man, Nuno Gonçalves. His reputation rests on the splendid altarpiece of The Veneration of St Vincent (National Museum of Art, Lisbon), from the monastery of São Vicente de Fora in Lisbon. Relatively little Portuguese painting from before the middle of the 15th century has survived; much of it shows strong Italian influence and none of the frescoes or portraits can be regarded as a convincing native source for Gonçalves' style.
The life of Nuno Gonçalves is thinly documented. As painter to Alfonso V he was active between 1450 and 1472. In 1471 he replaced the decorative artist João Anes as official painter to the city of Lisbon. Franciso de Olanda, friend of Michelangelo, reckoned Gonçalves among the “eagles”—the foremost painters of his age. According to Olanda, Gonçalves was the painter “who painted the altar of St Vincent in the Cathedral of Lisbon”.
The polyptych of The Veneration of St Vincent (c. 1460) has six panels; the figure of the Saint appears twice, suggesting that the work stood in two sections on either side of a statue. In front of St Vincent—patron saint of the Portuguese Royal Family and the Army—are Alfonso V, Henry the Navigator, and a retinue including nobles, knights, clerics, and fishermen.
Gonçalves' style has often been compared with that of the early Florentine fresco painters, and also with that of Jan van Eyck, who worked in Portugal in 1428. Yet this altarpiece has its individual character: it is essentially a composition of human figures, from which Italianate or Flemish notions of decorative detail have been eliminated. There is neither architectural perspective nor landscape to distract the eye; it is even doubtful whether the setting is interior or exterior. Gonçalves used color with restraint; gold is largely replaced by yellow, while the strong reds and greens of the fabrics are the more effective for the somber tones of the background. The faces suggest carved wood—long, fine-boned, and brooding, they are characteristically Portuguese.
No other painting can be safely attributed to Gonçalves. Works depicting St Theotonius and St Francis, and a portrait of a young man, indicate a vigorous following among his contemporaries and successors: he began a flourishing tradition, which lasted well into the 16th century.