The Vista Alegre chapel, in Ílhavo, houses a Baroque masterpiece: the tomb of D. Manuel de Moura Manuel. Contrary to Vatican rules, with its profusion of detail and rich iconography, the tomb of the bishop of Miranda is surprising. Sculpted in Ançã stone by the French sculptor Claude Laprade, the monumental tomb of D. Manuel de Moura Manuel is of a sensibility worthy of being seen and denotes a boldness of modernity for its time, the late 17th century.
Contrary to indications from the Vatican, the lying statue of the bishop is not entirely horizontal with his hands placed on his chest. Instead, the figure of the bishop rises from his deathbed and looks at the image of Our Lady of Penha de França, the patroness of the chapel to whom he was devoted. With his right hand allowing him to balance and his left hand as if starting a gesture from his chest, the whole movement imprinted by the sculpture is of great sensitivity.
Seeing Our Lady of Penha de França on his deathbed, Manuel de Moura Manuel rises towards the saint and contemplates eternal life, thus escaping the arms of death.
The whole tomb is strongly iconographic. It begins immediately with the two stone lions that with difficulty support the tomb, thus indicating the weight of the importance of the deceased buried here. Flanking the tomb are two phoenixes, in the shape of mourners and, at the foot of the deathbed, an angel holding a skull.
As the central figure of the drama, Our Lady of Penha de França appears to us small and off-centred, high up on the right-hand side of the whole monumental ensemble, so that the face of Don Manuel de Moura Manuel can look straight at her. The central figure is rather time, presented as an old man, who is flanked by two angels who lift the veil of death, thus allowing the bishop to contemplate eternal life. In the arch of the ensemble there are sculpted skulls bearing hats representing the highest social classes, in a clear message that it does not matter how important we are when we are alive, because we are all equal before death.
The tomb of D. Manuel de Moura Manuel is a masterpiece of rare sensitivity and the most important piece in the Vista Alegre chapel, thus known for being included in the museum complex of the bicentenary factory. But it is not the only reason to visit the temple.
The chapel of Our Lady of Penha de França is a fine example of Mannerist and Baroque architecture. Its high altar has a very interesting representation of the Nativity scene and the ceilings of the space are full of mural paintings. The chancel ceiling shows the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the nave ceiling shows the Tree of Jesse. In the chapel, there is also a set of 18th-century tile panels by Gabriel del Barco, representing scenes from the life of the Virgin.
The beauty of the chapel now appears to us in all its splendour, since it was the object of a careful restoration in 2015.
The Vista Alegre Chapel got its name when it was bought at public auction by the founder of the factory in 1816, who later built the manor house adjacent to it, today transformed into the Montebello Vista Alegre Ílhavo Hotel. One of the sons of José Ferreira Pinto Basto, a victim of a horseback riding accident, is also buried in the chapel. The family had access to the chapel through the window of the couple’s bedroom, which opens onto the first floor. Today, this window is an integral part of one of the hotel suites.
To visit Vista Alegre’s chapel and see the amazing tomb of Dom Manuel Moura Manuel, you must visit the Vista Alegre History Museum. The museum deserves careful attention. The visitor is welcomed by an enormous oven that imposes itself in the atrium. Then there is the entire history of the factory, told through its most significant pieces, but also recalling the innovation of a factory complex that had a workers’ neighbourhood, school, canteen and even a theatre for the workers.
A visit to the Bela Vista Historical Museum and the Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Penha de França is a must when visiting Ílhavo. Before or after a meal that may or may not be codfish, but should favour the flavours of the sea.