Madeira's top art collection is housed in the former 16th-century bishop's palace, which dominates one side of Praça do Município. Purchased with the proceeds of Madeira's sugar trade, the highlights of the collection are the priceless pieces of Flemish art commissioned by wealthy Madeiran merchants and landowners for their quintas – some of these figures even make a pop-up appearance in the pictures themselves. In the 1950s it was decided to gather all religious art in one place for safekeeping.
The first rooms you enter contain the museum's dimly lit silver collection, thousands of pieces big and small gleaming magically against dark backgrounds. Solid silver crucifixes, monstrances, huge plates and teapots come from across the island but mainly from the Sé, giving an indication of the wealth commanded by the world's largest ever diocese (all of Portugal's overseas territories). The highlight is the late-Gothic silver processional cross from the Sé, a truly magnificent piece of 16th-century craftsmanship commissioned by none other than King Manuel I.
The museum's middle section is a procession of 16th- and 17th-century religious oils, handless Gothic statuary and baroque sculpture which once graced Madeira's quintas and churches, though a lot of what is on display is from the once very wealthy Convento de Santa Clara. Look out for the almost life-size sculpture of the last supper, a camp-looking Judas holding a bag of cash, and the remarkably well-preserved 17th-century statue of Izabel Rainha de Portugal.
Saving the best till last, the undeniable high point of the collection is the four rooms of Flemish masters on the first floor. Van Cleve's Ascension of the Virgin, Triptych of the Incarnation and Triptych of Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Andrew dominate one room while Provoost's Saint Mary Magdalene from the Church of Madalena do Mar and Morrison's Nativity another. Pieter Coeck van Aalst is represented by his impressive Calvary, Jesus hoisted high above a lamenting crowd.