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This large, detailed panel is the oldest painting of the sea by a Flemish or Flemish-trained artist in the collection of the National Maritime Museum. It is one of the few contemporary paintings of ships of the first half of the sixteenth century and one of the best representations of the first generation of ocean-going merchantmen. The subject is generally thought to be the carrack 'Santa Catarina de Monte Sinai' bringing the Infanta Beatriz, second daughter of King Manuel of Portugal, to Villefranche for her marriage to Charles III, Duke of Savoy, in 1521. The Portuguese vessels are shown wearing Manuel's flags and emblems. However, considering the distinctly Flemish style of the painting, this identification of the subject remains debatable.
The painting depicts 10 ships, a caravel, three galleys and a rowing barge. The mountainous ‘world-landscape’ consists of a fortified tower on a rocky outcrop above a steeply rising walled town. It is viewed from a high vantage point.
The only other contemporary painting to show Portuguese carracks, in similar detail, is the 'Santa Auta' altarpiece, in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, Lisbon. The present painting exemplifies the emancipation of landscape and the sea. The artist has deemed both subjects worthy of large-scale, independent treatment and – at a very early date – has demonstrated their validity for paintings of considerable size. As far as currently known, it is the earliest representation of a marine subject for a secular rather than religious purpose.
Portuguese Carracks off a Rocky Coast
oil on panel
H 78.7 x W 144.7 cm