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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of the Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora

What is Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora?

Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora, (English: Monastery of Saint Vincent Outside the Walls), is a 16th-century monastery dedicated to Lisbon’s former patron saint that was founded following the Christian reconquest of the city in the 12th century.

Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora

Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora History

During the famous siege of Lisbon in 1147, when Christian soldiers recaptured the city from its Muslim rulers, King Afonso I promised to build a monastery dedicated to Saint Vincent. (He was the patron saint of Lisbon at the time. The boat that transported his body from Zaragoza to Lisbon, and the crows that accompanied it on the voyage, still feature on the city's coat of arms.) The monastery was founded that same year outside the city walls and duly named Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora (the Monastery of Saint Vincent Outside the Walls).

In the late 16th century, when Portugal and Spain were in an uneasy dynastic alliance, reconstruction and renovation works were carried out on the 400-year-old building, an architectural project that remains one of the finest legacies of the period of Spanish rule. King Philip I (or Philip II of Spain) had appropriated the monastery that was integral to the founding of Portugal, knocking down the previous version to make space for his interpretation of the national symbol. The new structure, designed by architects Filippo Terzi, Juan Herrera and Baltazar Álvares, was considered the first major Mannerist building in Portugal, and served as a blueprint for many other religious houses. Here, the Mannerist approach is characterised by its sense of austerity and pragmatism. The church façade, for instance, aside from some statues in recessed alcoves, is largely devoid of decoration. In the 17th and 18th centuries, inlaid marble, rich tile panels and paintings were introduced to the interior, alongside other favourite elements of the Portuguese Baroque, as the indigenous monarchs set their own seal on the building after the period of Spanish rule.

The monastery survived the great earthquake of 1755 almost entirely unscathed, with the sacristy (or priest’s room) being one of the few areas affected. During its restoration, the painter André Gonçalves depicted the Virgin and Child accompanied by saints, which features the figure of Saint Francis Borgia, protector from earthquakes, to the left of Mary. The sacristy contains colourful inlaid marbles from the 18th century, with floral motifs, and it was where archaeologists discovered the tombs of the crusaders who helped in the conquest of Lisbon in 1147.

Saint Francis isn’t the only historical figure to appear in the monastery’s decorative scheme. The entrance hall is adorned with magnificent blue and white glazed tiles depicting the kings of Portugal, the Christian reconquest of Lisbon, and the monastery’s medieval foundation. The room is crowned with an illusionistic ceiling painting by Florentine artist Vincenzo Bacherelli, who introduced this tradition to Lisbon. The elaborate decoration continues in the monastery’s two peaceful cloisters, lined with panels of Baroque tiles, inspired by French engravings of scenes from La Fontaine's fables.

Saint Anthony is believed to have studied here, and there’s a chapel dedicated to him in what is thought to have been his cell. The monastery is also home to a number of important burial sites, including the Royal Pantheon of the Bragança and the Pantheon of the Patriarchs.

The complex was occupied from its foundation in the Middle Ages by the canons of the Order of Saint Augustine until 1834, the year of the extinction of religious orders in Portugal. After that it became state property, and today houses several exhibitions dedicated to the history of Portuguese painting, tiles, nature, religion and archaeology.

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