Saturday, 8 December 2012

How to catch a leopard

Looking back through some photographs I took in Lisbon during the spring I was charmed and delighted to remember my visit to the National Museum of Azulejos. Azulejos – from the Arabic for ‘small stones’ – are the decorative tiles that are a distinctive feature of Portuguese art and architecture, visible everywhere - in churches, on the facades of buildings, cafes and public spaces – a rich tradition that stretches back to Moorish times. You find ceramic pictures everywhere in Portugal. They can be pious, historical, abstract, surreal - or just funny. This simple icon protected an alleyway in the old quarter of Alfama (above right), whilst a shop was adorned by an inquisitive monkey:
Historical personages were popular in the National Museum. Here's Catherine of Braganza, married to King Charles II of England (looking rather saucy), a curious armless Napoleon,

and, a more modern take, a version of a famous sketch of Portugal's great poet, Fernando Pessoa, beadily reading the paper:

A seventeenth century fantasy depiction of a leopard hunt particularly caught my fancy - animals and themes from Portugal's colonial adventures seem to have provided rich subject matter for the tile artists. The hunters set out in pursuit of some rather portly leopards, who look as though they've spent too long eating pastries in Lisbon's cafes. The hunters are armed with nets and traps to snare their prey:

But their most cunning device is the mirror trap. The leopard approaches the trap, sees a rival leopard in the mirror, and presumably maddened with rage, springs into the trap to attack - the lid is snapped shut and the leopard is taken!

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