The King’s Fountain: A Painting of Hidden Facts

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If you’re taking a stroll in the downtown district of Belém, located by the river Tagus in the coastal city of Lisbon, the largest city and the capital of Portugal, and home to many of Portugal’s landmarks and monuments, make sure you drop by an iconic spot in this area which is the “Berardo Collection Museum”. The internationally acclaimed museum can be found at Cultural Centre of Belém, and it holds a collection of over 1000 works of art both on permanent display and temporary exhibitions.  In this museum a certain piece of art in particular is what we would like to shed the light on and analyze in order to reveal some facts that might be hidden from the world, yet they have been vividly illustrated in that painting.

That painting is none other than “Chafariz D’El Rey”, which translates from Portuguese into “The King’s Fountain”. The oil painting is from the 16th century, 1570-1580 to be more precise; however, the Flemish painter who created this rather intriguing piece remains anonymous till the day. The painting depicts the oldest district in Lisbon, the Alfama district. The name “Alfama” is derived from the Arabic word “Al hamma”, which means, hot fountains or baths.

If you think about how most European films, writings and other forms of art portray Africans in Medieval Europe, they hardly feature any at all –as if they were eliminated on purpose-, and if they were present they would probably be portrayed as slaves and nothing else. The King’s Fountain painting however, paints a more truthful image of the situation back then, all you need is a pair of good eyes to notice those signs, a reasonable mind that puts two and two together, and you’ll immediately realize how Renaissance Lisbon had the highest percentage of black people in Europe (about 20%), varying in status from slaves to knights which is clearly evident in the painting (30% of the people in the painting are Africans).

Let’s start off by taking a general look over the painting, and see what things would strike you as interesting or differs from the common knowledge, and afterwards we will take a closer look on those parts.

The Chafariz d’El-Rey (King’s Fountain) in the Alfama District, Lisbon, 1570-80. (source)

With an impressive range of over one hundred and fifty human figures and six types of animals, the painter recorded here a busy urban scene in Lisbon that represents how the ever day life went about back then. There is so much going on that you simply can’t take it all in at one glance. Rather, you need to take your time looking, observing, noticing and contemplating. One thing is obvious though, and that is how both black and white people from a wide range of social strata co-existed at this time and place.

charafizdelrey_joao_de_sapanascoIf we zoom in below the mid right of the image, we’ll see a striking African personality striding on horseback. This man is identified as João de SáPanasco (1524 – 1567), who was gradually promoted from court jester to eventually becoming a knight of the prestigious order of Saint James, which is evident from the heraldry of the order of Santiago embroidered on his cloak. He was awarded that honour by the king in 1535, when he was part of the victorious military campaign over the Turks.

In front of the Afro-Portuguese horse rider, we can see two other African men, who seem to be dressed formally and rather nobly, and not only is their dress code an indicator of their status, but also the swords that they both carry show that they are of high rankings among the society.

charafizdelrey_guardThe close up on the left shows another African horse rider, and in front of him an African who appears to be ranked as a guard, which is apparent from the hat that he wears and the spear that he bears.

Africans on horses really isn’t that strange of a sight when we already know that at that time and even long before, horses were being used by many African societies and kingdoms such as; the Mossi Empire (the modern day Burkina Faso) [11th century – 1896], the Kingdom of Songhai (the modern day central Mai , the Niger and Nigeria) [15th – 16th century], the Empire of Mali [1230 – 1670], the Kanem-Bornu Empire (the modern day Chad and Nigeria) [700 – 1900 AD] and the Kingdom of Axum ( the modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea)[100 – 940 AD].

Another noticeable thing in the painting which demonstrates human diversity at that time in this Lisbon square is that we see white people and African people in both genders, men and women and in different ages too, for along with the adults, there are African children as well as white children playing around in the square.

The painting also sort of debunks another theory, which is when modern films give the impression that at the time, the poorest white person was richer than a middle class or a noble African. What we see here is a man and a woman (in different locations) who are of the poor working levels, and they are both barefoot, this only proves that the poor in Europe were the same like elsewhere, not widely literate and many couldn’t even afford to wear shoes.

The overall scene is a lively one and is diverse in actions, the main action (shown in the close up below) is people filling up those red pottery ewers that are perfectly balanced on their heads with water from the fountain (in the middle), and we see some of the people heading towards the fountain (on the far left), while others who finished the task are leaving the area (on the far right).


charafizdelrey_detained.pngMoreover, if we look closer on the far left, we’ll see that the painting illustrates the trade business in the form of the boatman unloading the hay and grains from the boat as well as other vendors among the crowds. Additionally, a view on law enforcement can be witnessed where a couple of constables can be seen detaining a man.

The King’s Fountain painting still remains somewhat mysterious, and due to the mere fact that the artist is unknown, we cannot verify if this painting is truly capturing a real life scene or if it is simply a product of the artist’s imagination.

Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that Africans were wrongfully portrayed in this era, and their depiction was confined to them being nothing but slaves, which is far from the truth. Africans were long known travellers and explorers of the different lands. They settled in various places, European countries being one of those places. Naturally, generation after generation of free Africans were born and raised in those European countries, (as proven in the case of Africans living in 1570 Lisbon) making those Africans who lived there official citizens of said countries.

Preconceptions about African people are what give birth to wrong assumptions. Logically speaking though, by looking at a person and just from their skin colour or facial features, can you determine if they are local residents of a certain country or if they are mere visitors? That doesn’t really make sense now, does it? After 400 years of integration, who can tell their descendants apart?

2 thoughts on “The King’s Fountain: A Painting of Hidden Facts”

  1. Katrina Langford

    16th-century painter who recorded a scene of everyday life at the King’s Fountain (Chafariz d’El Rei) in Lisbon depicted an impressive range of people and animals. In addition to a swan, a seal, fish, horses, dogs and birds, the artist also included more than 150 human figures.

    There’s so much going on in the busy scene along Lisbon’s port that Joaneath Spicer, the James A. Murnaghan Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, can be forgiven for initially overlooking an important detail. Only after she had finished working on the exhibition catalog did Spicer notice how many Jews appeared in the work.

    The artist depicted at least half a dozen Jewish men — the women’s religious identities are more difficult to discern — including two Jewish policemen hauling away a black man who appears, according to the wall text, to be “drunk and sheepish.” The latter figure and several other Africans explain the painting’s appearance in the exhibit

    Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe which is at the Walters through January 21. It subsequently travels to the Princeton University Art Museum, where it will be shown from February 16 to June 9. I was really unaware of the presence of so many Jews in this painting until I began to blow up details of a photo in preparation for installing the work, says Spicer, who recognized the Jewish figures from research she conducted for a 1996 article, The Star of David and Jewish Culture in Prague around 1600, which appeared in The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery.

    This is the only image I know of — certainly painting from this period that purports to show Jews Although medieval Jewish law isn’t even a minor focus of the exhibit, a comparison can be made between approaches to slavery under Jewish and European law. Jewish law permits several forms of slavery, but as Maimonides recorded in the “Laws of Slaves” (9:8) in his “Mishneh Torah,” the “early wise men” had their servants fed before they themselves ate, and shared the same menu as their slaves.

    Paintings of everyday life were popular in Flanders but not in Portugal, so the anonymous painter was probably a Flemish visitor inspired by the urban scene, according to Spicer. The painting is not only unprecedented for its portrayal of so many Jews — who have long beards, flat berets and yellow circles affixed to their clothes, per Charles V’s ruling — in the 1500s, but also for its depiction of so many African figures.

    Jewish masters are even charged with speaking “calmly” to their slaves and controlling their anger, for they are both children of the same God. Viewers who read the wall texts at the Walters learn that though Africans were sold as slaves to Europe, their children were free.

    That’s why many of the African figures in the 16th-century painting are identifiable by their capes as free men. One — who may be João de Sá Panasco, who worked his way up from slave and jester to gentleman — is shown riding a horse and wearing the symbol of the Order of St. James. -Menachem Wecker

  2. Katrina Langford

    Why don’t you address the black man being murdered in the middle of the painting? That’s the obvious tongue and cheek meaning of the painting “Fountain of the King” since blood seems to be pouring from his body. The man often described as “drunk” looks more likely in grief and Jewish officers appear to assist him. There’s messaging in the painting. I hope will report it.

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The King’s Fountain: A Painting of Hidden Facts

by Editorial Team time to read: 5 min