Theses Doctoral

Monumental Ambition: Tomb Sculpture in Early Imperial Portugal

Soley, Teresa

Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portuguese tomb sculptures stand as major artistic accomplishments that remain virtually untapped sources for European history, especially for the so-called “Age of Discoveries.” This dissertation reframes tomb sculptures as essential sources for early modern history by elucidating the role of these monuments as works intended to construct legacies as well as to commemorate them. It argues that an accurate interpretation of Portuguese tomb sculptures relies upon the acknowledgment of their rhetorical nature and the appreciation of their context as memorials to the aristocracy of a nascent global empire.

It reveals Africa’s singular political, economic, and cultural importance to the early modern Portuguese, even when their empire stretched from Brazil in the west to Macau in the east. It also sheds light upon cultural links between England and Iberia in this period, a subject that remains curiously overlooked in art historical scholarship despite its clear manifestation in the medium of tomb sculpture. The first chapter comprises the first comprehensive survey of Portuguese funerary monuments, with my analyses drawn from extensive fieldwork and archival research throughout Portugal.

The subsequent chapters address themes of power, chivalry, and empire through the medium of tomb sculpture. These analyses are drawn from a combination of historical, archival, and object-based study, which also produced the illustrated inventory of monuments that accompanies this dissertation as an appendix. Included in this inventory are transcriptions and translations of over one hundred tombs’ information-rich epitaphs, which reveal the nobility’s use of tombs to attempt to influence their historical legacy.

By integrating Portuguese tomb sculpture into broader dialogues and identifying this genre of art as a powerful instrument of idealization and persuasion with significant and long-reaching cultural impact, this study seeks to reintegrate and recontextualize fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portuguese patrons, artworks, and artists within the dynamic artistic milieu of early modern Europe from which they have been excluded. Providing an introduction to this rich corpus of artworks, this dissertation is intended to serve as a springboard for further study and to contribute to a clearer picture of this period, its people, and the enduring power of tombs.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Cole, Michael
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 21, 2022


Late Medieval, Monuments, Portugal, Renaissance, Sculpture, Tombs