Master Ptolemy: a Roman in 12th-century Coimbra?

Facade of the Old Cathedral of Coimbra. From my personal collection.

While reading an article on medieval Portuguese painting by Luís Urbano Afonso a few weeks ago, I found a bit of an unexpected likely medieval Roman artistic presence in 12th century Portugal. During the episcopate of Miguel Salomão (1162-1176), a man called Master Ptolemy was hired at least for a year by the bishop in order to work on altar boards. According to the Black Book of the bishropic of Coimbra, which contains several documents relating to the contemporary construction of the Romanesque Old Cathedral of Coimbra, Master Ptolemy was paid 7,5 marks of silver and 58 “morabitinos” (the Portuguese word for maravedis, which at this time designated the Almohad dinars) in order to enlarge a silver altar board as well as 150 “morabitinos” to produce a golden altar board and another 10 golden coins in order to produce a golden table depicting the Annunciation.

The interior of the Old athedral of Coimbra, with the altar by Jean d’Ypres at the end. From my personal collection.

  It is deduced he had come from the Roman Empire because of his Greek name, although it is also possible he had come from the Holy Land. Either way, contacts with both Jerusalem and Constantinople by bishops and other clergymen of Coimbra while making pilgrimages to the East are attested in the 12th century: an example of this is the famous Mauricius Burdinus, who before becoming archbishop of Braga and later Antipope, travelled to both places in 1104-1108. Nor would this be the last contact of Coimbra or for that matter Portugal with medieval Romans: an example of later interactions is the famous case of Vataça Laskaris or the presence of Portuguese merchants in the famous fair of Hagios Demetrios by the late 13th century. This shows how much the medieval world was better connected than often thought, even between distant parts of Christendom.

Sadly, we only know about these altar boards thanks to this document, since the artworks were destroyed, according to the author of the article possibly when the heir prince João raised money for the invasion of Castile by his father Afonso V. At this time, some pieces of the altar were taken by force to be melted and used as coins to pay for the army. The current altar is a Flamboyant Gothic addition, with a main retable by Olivier de Gand and Jean d’Ypres (1498-1502).

Here’s the article (in Portuguese) for those who are curious about medieval Portuguese painting. On pages 101-102 there’s a copy of the original account (in Medieval Latin) of the payments to Master Ptolemy from the Black Book: Em demanda da Pintura Medieval Portuguesa (1100-1400)







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