08 June, 2018

Jerónimos Monastery

The Jeronimos Monastery is the most impressive symbol of Portugal's power and wealth during the Age of Discovery. King Manuel I built it in 1502 on the site of a hermitage founded by Prince Henry the Navigator, where Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in Portugal in prayer before leaving for India. It was built to commemorate Vasco Da Gama's voyage and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for its success.
Vasco da Gama's tomb was placed inside by the entrance, as was the tomb of poet Luis de Camões, author of the epic The Lusiads in which he glorifies the triumphs of Da Gama and his compatriots. Other great figures in Portuguese history are also entombed here, like King Manuel and King Sebastião, and poets Fernando Pessoa and Alexandre Herculano.

The monastery was populated by monks of the Order of Saint Jerome (Hieronymites), whose spiritual job was to give guidance to sailors and pray for the king's soul. It's one of the great triumphs of European Gothic (UNESCO has classified it as a World Heritage monument), with much of the design characterized by elaborate sculptural details and maritime motifs. This style of architecture became known as "Manueline," a style that served to glorify the great "discoveries" of the age.TThe cloisters are magnificent, with each column differently carved with coils of rope, sea monsters, coral, and other sea motifs, evocative of that time of world exploration at sea. Here is also the entrance to the former refectory that has beautiful reticulated vaulting and tile decoration on the walls, depicting the Biblical story of Joseph.
The church interior is spacious with octagonal piers richly decorated with reliefs, and outside is a garden laid out in 1940 consisting of hedges cut in the shape of various municipal coats of arms of Portugal. In the centre is a large fountain also decorated with coats of arms, often illuminated on special occasions.

Founded in 1501, the magnificent Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) in Lisbon is a great monument to the Age of Discovery and a magnificent example of the Manueline style of architecture. The monastery was founded by King Manuel I in celebration of - and funded by - successful Portuguese voyages around the world.
History of Jeronimos MonasteryIn 1496, King Manuel I (1495–1521) asked the pope for permission to build a great monastery in thanks to the Virgin Mary for Vasco de Gama's successful voyage to India. The request was granted and construction began on the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos on January 6, 1501. The project was funded by treasures from explorations in Africa, Asia, and South America, as well as a stiff tax on the Portuguese-controlled spice trade with Africa and the East.

The king hired French architect Diogo de Boitaca (1460-1528; master of the pioneering Igreja de Jesus in Setúbal), who was later succeeded by João de Castilho (1475-1552) of Spain, Diogo de Torralva (c.1500-1566), and Jerónimo de Ruão (1530-1601). The site Manuel chose for the new monastery was on the banks of the Tagus river, replacing a small chapel dedicated to St. Mary of Belém by Henry the Navigator.

King Manuel I named his new foundation the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Belém and invited the Order of St. Jerome (Hieronymites, or dos Jerónimos) to occupy it. The powerful Hieronymites were known for their contemplative spirituality and a productive intellectual output; they also shared the king's political views.

The Hieronymites monk was expected to celebrate daily mass for the souls of Prince Henry the Navigator, King Manuel I and his successors in perpetuity, in addition to hearing confessions and providing spiritual counsel to seamen and navigators who sailed from Belém.

As for the monastery, it would be not only a thank-offering to the Virgin Mary but a lasting monument to the Age of Discovery and the mausoleum of King Manuel I and his successors. The project was completed around 1600, by which time Renaissance and Baroque elements were incorporated into the design.

The 1755 earthquake damaged the monastery but thankfully did not destroy it. Many restoration projects have been undertaken since then, some executed better than others. The Hieronymites occupied the monastery for 400 years until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1833, when the building became state property. It was used as a college for the Casa Pia of Lisbon (a children's charity) until around 1940.

What to See at Jeronimos Monastery

Jerónimos Monastery is a prime example of Manueline architecture, a style unique to Portugal that combines Flamboyant Gothic, Moorish, and early Renaissance influences. It is characterized by an elaborate use of sculptural detail and often includes maritime motifs. Other notable Manueline structures in Portugal include Batalha Monastery and the Templar Convento de Cristo in Tomar.

The main entrance to the monastic church is the south portal, designed by João de Castilho. Occupying the central pillar is a statue of Henry the Navigator. Inside, fragile-looking pillars covered with sculpture support a complex web of lierne vaulting over three aisles. Much of the artwork depicts scenes of St. Jerome, translator of the Vulgate and patron of the Hieronymite order.

The west door leads into the cloisters, where the stonework is even more impressive than the church. Designed by João de Castilho, the cloisters have two levels, the lower one having a groin vault and the most exuberant decoration. Virtually every surface of the arches and pillars are covered in elaborate Manueline sculpture.

Jerónimos Monastery contains the tombs of King Manuel and other Portuguese royalty, as well as many important figures from Portuguese history. Most famous among the latter is Vasco de Gama, whose accomplishments at sea inspired the monastery. Other notables include the romantic poet Herculano (1800-54) and the poet Fernando Pessoa.

Part of the monastic complex is the freestanding Chapel of St. Jerome, built in 1514. It is a small rectangular building with conical pinnacles at the four corners and stone "rope" along the roofline. Gargoyles look out from the corners. From the west doorway, there is a fine view all the way out to sea.

The nearby Tower of Belém is also part of the World Heritage Site. Like the monastery, it was built to commemorate Vasco da Gama's expedition and remains a reminder of the maritime discoveries that laid the foundations of the modern world. North African influences can be seen on the upper parts. The tower was built in 1515 as a fort in the middle of the Tagus River, which subsequently altered course so that it now stands on the riverbank. A good view of the monastery can be enjoyed from the top of the five-story tower.
Jeronimos Monastery is Lisbon's most celebrated monument, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983, and Vasco de Gama's resting place
King Manuel I commissioned the building in 1502 to commemorate Vasco de Gama's successful return from India and to thank Virgin Mary for the success
The monastery symbolizes Portugal's power and wealth during the Age of Discovery. It is one of the most important examples of Manueline (Portuguese late-Gothic) architecture
The visual centrepiece of the exterior is the richly decorated south portal with elaborate carvings
Inside, along with Gama, important figures of Portuguese history are entombed such as kings and queens or writers Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) and Luis de Camões (1524-80)
The nave's 6 columns are beautifully decorated with characteristic Manueline carvings of ropes and exotic flora
The cloisters showcase Manueline carvings at their best. Each column is differently carved with coils of rope, sea monsters, coral, and other sea motifs evocating the Heroic Age of Discovery

What to do there:

Admire the beautiful Manuline architecture of the monastery from the outside
Start your tour by walking around in the church to see the tombs and the elaborate decoration
Head upstairs to the choir to take in the church from above and admire the carved choir stalls
Walk on to see the real highlights: the cloisters (with Manueline carvings) and the refectory

Tips & Insights:

It is less crowded late afternoon or off-season
Free admission with Lisboa Card
Free admission on Sundays and holidays until 2pm
Do not miss the best pastries in town: the café Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (near the monastery) serves delicious custard tarts since 1841

I am wearing a Begumpuri saree that I have previously worn here. You can also read more information about Begumpuri here. The bag is bought locally in Lisbon. It has their traditional motifs. 

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