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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of Carmo Convent in Lisbon

What is Carmo Convent?

Carmo Convent (Portuguese: Convento do Carmo) is the well-preserved Gothic ruins of a Catholic convent that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1755 that now contains an archaeological museum.

Carmo Convent Ruins

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Carmo Convent History

This intriguing convent, now in ruins, was founded in the late 14th century by Nuno Álvares Pereira, the kingdom's Constable (not a policeman in a gartered helmet, as British travellers might think, but the head of the Portuguese military). He was King John I's most faithful knight, with whom he won a decisive victory at the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 and managed to maintain the independence of the Portuguese nation’s territory. Álvares Pereira, after his victory and the fulfilment of his mission as a knight of the kingdom of Portugal, became a Carmelite friar in 1423, following his wife’s death, and donated his wealth to the convent. Its founder took the name Friar Nuno de Santa Maria, was beatified in 1918 and recently canonized in 2009.

Striking and unmistakeable even at first sight, this imposing convent follows the Gothic style, while demonstrating specific influences from the Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória in Batalha, also under construction at the time. The convent, one of the largest architectural projects the city had ever seen, was dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel – the ‘Carmo’ of its name refers to Mount Carmel in Israel. It was built in 1389 by the brilliant architect Gomes Martins, who carried out Nuno Álvares Pereira's request to build the temple on top of the hill. Its position was carefully chosen by the knight, who took many things into consideration: the spatial allusion to Mount Carmel, to which the order’s name gives tribute; and for being opposite Lisbon’s Castle Hill, with a peripheral view over the Royal Palace and the Cathedral of Lisbon. This is a religious space considered emblematic of the city and of national identity, associated with a hero of the Middle Ages who chose this place to carry out his life’s work, and as his own burial ground.

However, disaster struck the monument in 1755 with the great Lisbon Earthquake. Part of the convent collapsed, and a subsequent fire almost completely destroyed the complex’s interior. A reconstruction in neo-Gothic style was begun, but was rudely and decisively interrupted in 1834 due to the extinction of the Religious Orders in Portugal. The pillars and arches of the naves date from this period, and now are celebrated as wonderful exemplars of the neo-Gothic. As romanticism spread through popular taste in the 19th century, ruins and other forms of the picturesque gained in popularity, and accordingly the building’s reconstruction was halted. Instead, you’ll see the large open spaces exposed to the elements, with the skeletal arches that once supported the convent’s roof. Never mind that it wasn’t the slow march of ancient time, but an abrupt modern earthquake, that left the building in ruins!

The decision to leave the convent’s beautiful ruins as they are allowed the Carmo Archaeological Museum to be installed in 1864. Its establishment was spearheaded by Joaquim Possidónio Narciso da Silva, through the impressive effort and resourcefulness of the Portuguese Archaeologists Association. It was the first museum of Art and Archaeology in Portugal and was born from the primary objective of safeguarding the heritage of the place, after the countless damages inflicted during the French Invasions and the Liberal Wars. Its collections gather fragments of architecture and sculpture, funerary monuments, and tile panels.

The ruins of the Carmo Convent have long been treasured, by historians and archaeologists, but also the curious general visitor. They bring to life the history of Lisbon, providing an architectural image of its often turbulent journey from pre-historic times to the modern day.

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