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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon

What is Jerónimos Monastery?

Jerónimos Monastery, known locally as Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, is a Grand 16th-century limestone monastery that for centuries was Lisbon’s foremost religious structure.

Jerónimos Monastery

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Jerónimos Monastery History

In 1495, when his cousin died without a legitimate heir, King Manuel I inherited the Portuguese throne. During a 26-year reign, Manuel oversaw his nation’s greatest maritime achievements, and the subsequent influx of enormous wealth into Portugal from the lands it had conquered and colonised. (Accordingly Manuel received the epithet ‘the Fortunate’.) Perhaps the greatest symbol of this newly empowered kingdom, sponsored by a ruler enjoying free-flowing funds and keen to underline his piety as well as his magnificence, is this landmark Gothic monastery.

Known also as the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Belém, the Jerónimos Monastery was commissioned by the king in the late 15th century. The project, finally completed 100 years later, sought funding from multiple sources: the private donation of a Florentine banker and slave-trader, and a tax on spices, gems and gold. (An old saying goes that Jerónimos was ‘built by pepper’ – on the implication of the project in the slave trade there’s a telling silence.) The monastery is generally considered the ultimate example of the Manueline style, named after the commissioning king, and features many of its characteristic elements: nautical symbols, expressing the maritime essence of Portugal’s wealth; the armillary sphere (a model of the celestial globe); and significant animals and plants from the various Portuguese colonies. Erected on the site of a former church dedicated to Saint Mary, the extensive religious complex was bestowed on the monks of the Order of Saint Jerome, who remained here until the suppression of the religious orders in Portugal in 1834.

The first design for the monastery was drawn up by Diogo Boytac, making use of the rich decoration of the Manueline style, with the application of heraldic symbols, trunks, roots and armillary spheres. Boytac remained Master of Works until 1516. The following year Spanish architect João de Castilho took over. His additions tended more closely to the Plateresque style, characterised by its intricate decorative features (the term originates in a Spanish word meaning ‘in the manner of a silversmith’). De Castilho was responsible for the wonderful, ornate south portal, sometimes mistaken for the main entrance due to its grandiosity, which features many carved figures surrounding Prince Henry the Navigator (on a pedestal between the two doors), a central figure behind Portugal’s maritime might.

At once delicate and imposing, the monastery’s church is illuminated by the light of stained-glass windows, separated by octagonal pillars and crowned with a vaulted ceiling. It displays the exuberant decoration of the Manueline style, but with unusual judiciousness and balance. The church’s main chapel, designed by Diogo de Terralva and built by Jerónimo Ruão in the mid-16th century, includes the tombs of King Manuel and Queen Maria, King John III and Queen Catherine. Within the church, you’ll also find the tomb of King Sebastian I, who disappeared in a battle in Morocco; a legend was born that he would one day return to save his nation, and thus Sebastian performs in Portuguese culture the archetype of ‘king asleep in the mountain’ or, in this case, the ocean.

Two tombs near the church’s main entrance also hold the remains of great figures. On the left is the burial place of Vasco da Gama, discoverer of the sea route to India, by which the Portuguese crown gained its spice monopoly. This discovery is still remembered today as one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of maritime exploration; Navy Day is celebrated on the 20th of May, the same day of da Gama’s arrival in Calicut (today’s Kozhikode, in Kerala, India). On the right is the burial of Luís de Camões, considered the finest Portuguese poet, and author of the 16th-century classic work Os Lusíadas, an epic that relates, in legendary and mythicised form, the exploits of the man across the doorway. The hero and his narrator stand next to each other, as if in final, eternal dialogue.

This solemn monastery, the most visited monument in the country, is much more than a unique architectural work, but a symbol of the history of Portugal and its capital.

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