The National Museum of Ancient Art is the most important public museum in Portugal. Located in the city of Lisbon, a few meters from the Tagus River, it’s the perfect place to visit on an Alcântara or Santos itinerary – two of the most tourist areas in the Portuguese capital.
The National Museum of Ancient Art‘s collection comprises more than 40,000 pieces, spanning the 12th to 19th centuries, and including paintings, sculptures, and examples of goldsmithery and decorative art. Most of the works are European, but you’ll also find Asian and African art, as a result of the Portuguese Discoveries!
So, do you want to know more about the National Museum Of Ancient Art: Best Tips For Visiting In 2023? Keep reading!
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- Brief History of the National Museum of Ancient Art
- What to See at the National Museum of Ancient Art
- “Temptations of Saint Anthony”, by Hieronymus Bosch (1st Floor, Room 61)
- “Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist”, by Lucas Cranach, the Elder (1st Floor, Room 61)
- “A Miracle of Saint Eusebius of Cremona”, by Rafaello Sanzio (1st Floor, Room 63)
- Table Centerpiece, by Thomas Germain and François-Thomas Germain (1st Floor, Room 69)
- “Namban Folding Screens”, by Kanō Naizen (2nd Floor, Room 14)
- “Belém Monstrance”, by Gil Vicente (2nd Floor, Room 29)
- “Saint Vincent Panels”, by Nuno Gonçalves (3rd Floor, Room 2)
- “Two-Headed Fountain” (3rd Floor, Room 7)
- “Portrait of King Sebastião”, by Cristóvão de Morais (3rd Floor, Room 10)
- Practical Guide to the National Museum of Ancient Art
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Brief History of the National Museum of Ancient Art
The former National Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology was inaugurated on May 11th, 1884, in the Alvor-Pombal Palace (popularly known as Palace of the Green Windows, the name of the street). The opening ceremony was attended by the then King Luís I, a great patron of the arts.
Nevertheless, the origins of what is now called the National Museum of Ancient Art go back to 1834 – the year in which the religious orders were extinguished and its immense art estate became the property of the National Academy of Fine Arts (a state entity created by decree of Queen Maria II on October 25th, 1836).
Throughout its history, the National Museum of Ancient Art has received not only works of art from ecclesiastical institutions, but also assets from the great royal palaces – especially after the Implantation of the Republic on October 5th, 1910.
To this very valuable heritage, private donations and purchases by the State were added. In addition, the collection was divided on a decree from May 26th, 1911: works prior to 1850 were kept in the National Museum of Ancient Art and the rest was incorporated into the new National Museum of Contemporary Art.
What to See at the National Museum of Ancient Art
As I mentioned earlier, visiting the National Museum of Ancient Art means visiting the largest and most relevant collection of public art in Portugal. In other words, you’ll spend a morning/afternoon (or even an entire day) exploring the permanent and temporary exhibitions, because the museum has four floors of rooms and galleries:
- Ground Floor – Temporary Exhibitions’ Galleries, Library, Auditorium, Drawings & Engravings Office, and Mezzanine Room (for temporary exhibitions)
- 1st Floor – Painted Ceiling Room (for temporary exhibitions), Chapels of Albertas, Nativity Scene Room, Textiles, Portuguese Furniture (Rooms 36-44), European Decorative Arts (Rooms 48-49, 55, 66-70), and European Painting (Rooms 51-65)
- 2nd Floor – Art of the Expansion (Rooms 14-18), Ceramics (Rooms 19-25), Goldsmithery (Rooms 26-29), and Jewelry (Room 30)
- 3rd Floor – Portuguese Painting & Sculpture (Rooms 1-13)
And I know it may seem difficult to find the best works of art from the National Museum of Ancient Art among thousands of paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, ceramics, textiles, glass, drawings, prints, and pieces of furniture and silverware, but I’m going to help you!
“Temptations of Saint Anthony”, by Hieronymus Bosch (1st Floor, Room 61)
The triptych on the “Temptations of Saint Anthony” was painted around 1500 by the Brabantine artist Jeroen van Aken (better known by his pseudonym Hieronymus Bosch). The painter is considered by many to be one of the great influencers of Surrealism – an artistic movement that only emerged over 400 years later!
Hieronymus Bosch was passionate about the fantastic universe and portrayed macabre scenes about loneliness, sin, and temptation in many of his paintings. Another of his stylistic features is the inclusion of diabolical symbols and caricatures of religious characters.
“Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist”, by Lucas Cranach, the Elder (1st Floor, Room 61)
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) was a painter and engraver of the Holy Roman Empire, best known for his portraits of members of the Royal Family as well as leaders of the Protestant Reformation (including Martin Luther). Due to his long and successful career, he’s considered one of the biggest names of the German Renaissance.
Painted around 1510, this portrait of “Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist” is the first in a series of paintings by the author about the seduction and perversion of prominent female figures.
In this case, the protagonist is Salome, the granddaughter of King Herod I and allegedly responsible for the execution of Saint John the Baptist (according to the New Testament of the Holy Bible).
“A Miracle of Saint Eusebius of Cremona”, by Rafaello Sanzio (1st Floor, Room 63)
Despite not being one of the best-known works by Rafaello Sanzio, “A Miracle of Saint Eusebius of Cremona” deserves to be highlighted in this guide due to the importance of its author.
After all, we’re talking about Raphael, one of the great masters of Renaissance painting and architecture who created the “Scuola di Atene” (in the Vatican Museums) or the “Madonna del Cardellino” (in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence)!
The scene, depicting three young people being resurrected by St. Eusebius, is part of an altarpiece designed for the Chiesa di San Domenico (in Città di Castello, Italy). Two other panels survive from this same altarpiece, preserved in the National Gallery (in London, England) and in the North Carolina Museum of Art (in Raleigh, United States).
Table Centerpiece, by Thomas Germain and François-Thomas Germain (1st Floor, Room 69)
This monumental piece was commissioned by D. José Mascarenhas da Silva e Lencastre (a nobleman of the Royal House and 8th Duke of Aveiro) to Thomas Germain, sometime between the end of the 1720s and the beginning of the 1730s. Now, Thomas Germain was one of the most renowned Parisian goldsmiths of the first half of the 18th century and stood out, particularly, in rococo silverware.
A symbol of refinement and ostentation, this centerpiece (or “surtout de table”, in French) addresses popular themes of the time, such as hunting and mythology. Among the sculpted animals, it’s possible to admire four Mediterranean tortoises, two greyhounds, a wild boar, a rabbit, woodcocks, and other types of birds, in addition to numerous fruits and vegetables.
“Namban Folding Screens”, by Kanō Naizen (2nd Floor, Room 14)
The “Namban Folding Screens” is a set of four Japanese screens attributed to Kanō Naizen (the first pair, pictured) and Kanō Domi (the second pair). Made between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, they portray the arrival of Portuguese navigators in Japan, more specifically in the port of Nagasaki.
The Age of Discovery led the Portuguese to arrive in Japan in 1943, an event that gave rise to an important commercial and cultural partnership and exchange between the two countries. At that time, the Japanese nicknamed the Portuguese namban jin (ie, “southern barbarians”) – hence the name of the folding screens.
“Belém Monstrance”, by Gil Vicente (2nd Floor, Room 29)
Of the more than 3000 pieces of goldsmithery and jewelry that make up the collection of the National Museum of Ancient Art, the “Belém Monstrance” is the most extraordinary.
This priceless work dates back to 1506 and its creation is attributed to the goldsmith Gil Vicente (the also renowned playwright and poet, considered the “father of Portuguese theater”).
The “Belém Monstrance” was commissioned by King Manuel I and reflects the prosperous period that Portugal lived during the Discoveries.
Crafted in a late Gothic style, it’s made of gold, glass, and polychrome enamels, which were brought by Vasco da Gama on his return from his second trip to India in 1502.
“Saint Vincent Panels”, by Nuno Gonçalves (3rd Floor, Room 2)
The National Museum of Ancient Art has over 2000 paintings of Portuguese and European origin, but “Saint Vincent Panels” are certainly the most famous masterpiece of the entire collection. Made around 1470, they were attributed to Nuno Gonçalves, a painter of the court of King Afonso V.
This six-panel polyptych (an altarpiece made up of several panels that tell a story) is one of the greatest exponents of European painting in the second half of the 15th century. In total, it’s possible to observe 58 characters from the Court and from various social strata, clustered around the repeated figure of Saint Vincent.
“Two-Headed Fountain” (3rd Floor, Room 7)
By an unknown author, the “Two-Headed Fountain” is a very enigmatic sculpture, which can give rise to the most diverse interpretations.
Dating from the beginning of the 16th century, this piece represents King Manuel I and Queen Eleanor of Austria (his third wife), accompanied by two shields with their respective mottos.
In fact, only the monarchs’ heads were carved, as they merge into a helical column decorated with scales.
Many believe it to be the body of a snake or other aquatic creature – not least because this statue served as a spout for a public fountain!
“Portrait of King Sebastião”, by Cristóvão de Morais (3rd Floor, Room 10)
This “Portrait of King Sebastião” is probably in all the History of Portugal books for basic education. Created in 1571 by Cristóvão de Morais (a Mannerist-style painter who worked for the Portuguese court), the oil painting depicts the young King Sebastião I even before he came of age.
King Sebastião was always a king very cherished by the Portuguese, who called him “The Desired”. The monarch ascended to the throne at just 3 years old and died just over two decades later, in the Battle of Alcácer-Quibir (in northern Morocco).
King Sebastião disappeared in combat without leaving any descendants, which left Portugal in a severe succession crisis. And as a result, the kingdom lost its independence to Spain!
Practical Guide to the National Museum of Ancient Art
After discovering the history of the National Museum of Ancient Art and its must-see works of art, it’s time for me to reveal some tips for an optimal visit. For that reason, I want to leave you with three suggestions based on my personal experience, which will help you to make the most of this magnificent museum!
1. Take Note of All Practical Information
The National Museum of Ancient Art is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 am to 6 pm – and closed on Mondays and the holidays of January 1st, Easter Sunday, May 1st, June 13th, and December 25th.
Regarding tickets, the normal price is €6 – but there are several types of discounts, which you can check on the official website of the National Museum of Ancient Art. In addition, entry is free on Sundays and holidays for all citizens residing in Portugal!
And while it’s not exactly necessary most of the year, you can avoid queues during high season if you buy your ticket in advance at the Directorate-General for Cultural Heritage online ticket office.
2. Check the Available Temporary Exhibitions
The last time I visited the National Museum of Ancient Art, I had the opportunity to see a temporary exhibition called “I Saw the Kingdom Turn – Art from the Time of King Manuel I, Five Hundred Years after His Death”. This exhibition took place between June 25th and September 26th, 2021, in Gallery A (ground floor) of the museum.
I think temporary exhibitions are an excellent opportunity to discover collections from other museums, galleries, and/or cultural centers. For example, I had the opportunity to admire works and pieces from the National Library of Portugal and the Torre do Tombo National Archive!
3. Visit Other National Museums in Lisbon
As the capital of Portugal, the city of Lisbon hosts a large number of National Museums, which you can (and should) add to your itinerary. In addition to the National Museum of Ancient Art, you can also visit the:
- National Coach Museum
- National Museum of Archaeology
- National Museum of Contemporary Art of Chiado
- National Museum of Costume
- National Museum of Ethnology
- National Museum of Natural History and Science
- National Museum of Theater and Dance
- National Museum of the Azulejo
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