Week 60: Cherubs

The beach: it might be the height of summer, but there’s still plenty of space on the sand

The beach: it might be the height of summer, but there’s still plenty of space on the sand

The inviting sea

The inviting sea

Husband’s new recipe dinkel/spelt bread: taste and texture perfect

Husband’s new-recipe dinkel/spelt bread: taste and texture perfect

We said goodbye to our latest family visitors – parents and three small children – and sat in the back garden, the din slowly receding from memory. The despotic rule of tiny, highly mobile and newly verbal human beings was over, though it’s worth pointing out that, judging by the eldest child, the development trajectory into reason and reasonability seems to be a short and fast one.

As our eardrums readjusted to the quiet, we noticed something moving up the trunk of the carob tree a few feet away. Its disguise was perfect; it looked exactly like the bark. If it hadn’t been moving, we’d never have noticed it. It twisted its neck and showed the side of its face, a chocolate-brown stripe running down through its eye. It was a wryneck (Jynx torquilla): little bigger than a sparrow, and a member of the woodpecker family. A bird not often seen.

I mention the Latin name because it’s an interesting one. We get the word ‘jinx’ from here. In ancient Greek and Roman times the bird was believed to have magical powers, enabling lovers to win the heart of the one they wanted. This called for some jiggery-pokery involving tying the poor bird to a wheel and spinning it. The second part of the name, torquilla or ‘little twister’, describes the behaviour that might have given rise to its reputation for supernatural abilities. When threatened, the bird can twist and squirm its neck like a snake, hissing and darting out its long, ant-eating tongue.

Ants are, apparently, the wryneck’s favourite food. If that’s the case, then frankly it could be eating them a whole lot faster. I’m generally at ease with the insect life around here but ants inside the house have only themselves to blame when they get squashed or sprayed. Interestingly, the more despotic the child, the more keen they were to save the ants. The oldest one, the one subject to reason, was happy to assist me in killing them. Whether this is down to innate character or development stage, only time will tell.


The câmara at Tavira has just completed the renovation of one of the town’s many churches: that of São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo, the mariners’ church. It’s fascinating – even if you don’t like chubby cherubs and gilt. For me the most interesting part is the wooden ceiling: a trompe-l’oeil effect intended to give the impression of much greater height than the reality. It was painted in 1766 – i.e. soon after the 1755 earthquake when so many buildings were damaged and had to be wholly or partially rebuilt – by one Luis António Pereira, and is said to be his only known piece of work. By the twenty-first century the wood had rotted but the paintwork had more or less held together. The entire ceiling got taken to Lisbon for renovation and then returned to be part of the restored and reopened church. The original work was not immensely skilled, I’d say, and perhaps that’s why Pereira wasn’t asked to do any more. Or did he have an attitude problem? It was very hard to avoid noticing these cheeky cherubs, after all …

Detail: trompe-l'oeil ceiling. Did the eighteenth-century painter have a sense of humour? Or have I spent too long in the company of children recently, such that in a beautifully restored church I could only focus my attention on something infantile?

Detail: trompe-l’oeil ceiling. Did the eighteenth-century painter have a sense of humour, or did he bear a grudge against someone? (Or have I been infantilised by the company of small children into being fascinated by this detail?)

São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo himself, thirteenth-century patron saint of mariners. Missing from his right hand is the candle he is supposed to hold – perhaps it’s just too hot and the candle would go limp . . .

Here he is, São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo, thirteenth-century Portuguese patron saint of mariners


  1. Husband

    Meanwhile in Germany, Husband’s mind is playing tricks on him by playing back the calls of the Bee-eaters from our garden. As for maestro Pereira, perhaps that cherub found its way into the painting AFTER he (Pereira that is) had been asked not to do any more public buildings.

  2. Hazel

    I wanna see the church next time we’re over! And the wryneck — kindly arrange this particular treat! Ants: a source of fascination to kids. I spent endless (tiresome) minutes studying them with mine when they were just walking and given to detailed pavement (or other ground) examination en route to the Broadway, the station or even, later, school. When D and I were young, hitching around Europe, ants made motorways through and round the inside of our tent. I could bang on about ants for ever. Wet and mizzly here — oh, for more lovely Portuguese sun. xx

  3. fatma

    Love the history lesson this week; etymology of the word ‘jinx’ – I am always fascinated by where the particulars of language arises from, and the detail of the wooden ceiling in the Church. Give the man a break is what I say – he clearly had a great sense of humour!

  4. Fiona

    Fascinating bout the trompe-l’oeil ceiling!


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