It’s All About the Details in St Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon

Jerónimos Monastery, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

One of most famous sites of Lisbon is the Jerónimos Monastery – a late Gothic “Manueline” style building that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It’s big.  It’s grand.  It’s odd.

The monastery was built on a site occupied by a church dedicated to Santa Maria de Belém.  Its monks were members of the Order of Christ – an organisation set up in 1319 by the Portuguese King, Denis I, to replace the abolished order of the Knights Templar.  With the church’s position by the harbour of Praia do Restelo, the Order served mariners.

The main entrance of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The main entrance of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

It was on the orders of Manuel I that construction began on the current monastery and church in 1501.  The money for this enormous project came from the 5% tax that was put on African and Oriental commerce, which shows just how much money was coming into the coffers.

Manuel I decided to have Hieronymite monks in the monastery.  Their job was to pray for the King’s eternal soul, but they also took over from the Order of Christ, in that they too provided spiritual guidance to the mariners who were travelling around the world.  This continued until 1833.

The fancy towers and simple walls of the outside of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The fancy towers and simple walls of the outside of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Side view of the South Portal by João de Castilho, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Side view of the South Portal by João de Castilho, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The monastery is famous for its ornate architectural style that became known as Manueline.  It’s odd.  It’s like an ornately decorated wedding-cake when viewed as a whole, but the overall structure is picturesque and there are some very striking angles and views.  But it’s also kinda over-decorated and a bit hard to take in.  Mama and Sister-Chickpea didn’t feel it.  I did.  But I was looking at the details…

Diogo de Boitaca was the architect who drew up the plans for the monastery.  He was succeeded by the Spanish Juan de Castilho, who introduced a more Plateresque style to the proceedings: Plateresque being the style that emulates the work of silversmiths, which was very popular in the Spanish world.  With the death of Manuel I in 1521, construction halted, only to resume in 1550 with the architect Diogo de Torralva taking over the job of architect.  Work again stopped in 1580 when Spain and Portugal became unified, and the Escorial in Spain took away all the available cash for building.  

With Portuguese Independence from Spain in 1640 the monastery once again gained importance and became the burial place for the royal family.  It managed to survive the 1755 Lisbon earthquake with minimal damage and pottered on until a decision was made in 1833 to secularise the buildings.  This led to many artworks being transferred to the King or, tragically, being lost.

Restoration of the monastery began in 1860 – the building has sustained damage through neglect in the thirty-odd intervening years when it had been left vacant.  The story of the next ten years is of constant changes brought in by constantly changing architects – including, bizarrely, the scenery designers Rambois and Cinatti, who had worked on the São Carlos Theatre.  Anyway, considerable remodelling started again in the 1890s and yet again in 1939, when changes were made to celebrate the centenary of modern Portugal.  Again at the end of the 20th century further conservation, cleaning and restoration happened in the main chapel and cloisters.

So at the end of all that, I have no idea how much of what you actually see is original.

The cloisters of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The cloisters of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The cloisters that you immediately enter on your visit are the main part of the monastery that you get to see.  They were designed by Boitac, but the final design was by Juan de Castilho, who went in for the whole Plateresque-style-thing, with seemingly every inch covered in decoration.  This decoration is full of Manueline motifs, mixed in with Renaissance and Moorish bits.  The result is… odd.

The columns of many patterns in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The columns of many patterns in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Pattern after pattern in the cloisters of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Pattern after pattern in the cloisters of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Some startled faces in medallions in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Some startled faces in medallions in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Points in the cloisters of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Lion fountain in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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A ship sailing in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Another view of the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Scene from the Passion, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Scene from the Passion, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

There are a few rooms off the cloisters that you can go into, and one of them is the 16th century Refectory.  There was apparently once a small wooden pulpit from which a guy would read from the Bible and Lives of Saints during meals.  I thought it was interesting that after about two hundred years of staring blankly at the walls the monks decided to add the tiles – particularly since the side walls tell the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt (the north end depicts the Miracle of the Bread and Fish).

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The refectory, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Joseph's brothers return home with his coat of many colours - but no Joseph - 1780-85, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Joseph’s brothers return home with his coat of many colours – but no Joseph – 1780-85, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Joseph is confused about something relating to his brothers, 1780-85, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal.  I thought the two men with the Turkic turbans were interesting.

Joseph is confused about something relating to his brothers, 1780-85, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal.  I thought the two men with the Turkic turbans were interesting.

Joseph fleeing in terror from Potiphar's hussy wife, 1780-85, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Joseph fleeing in terror from Potiphar’s hussy wife, 1780-85, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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The Nativity, 16th/17th century, att. António Campelo, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

IMG_2St Jerome, mid 17th century, att. Avelar Rebelo, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal452

Back into the cloisters…

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Strange Kermit-dog emerging from behind a fence, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Pieta in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The strange shape of the cloisters with the church looming behind it, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The strange shape of the cloisters with the church looming behind it, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Strange little people emerging from foliage in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Some more strange patterns on the columns in the cloisters of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Some more strange patterns on the columns in the cloisters of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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View towards the church from the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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The Annunciation, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Bosses on the ceiling of the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Bosses on the ceiling of the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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St Jerome, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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View from the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Medallion with a bust and strange creatures, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

In the so-called Chapter Room – which was never used as such, and was completed in the 19th century restorations – there is an exhibition about Alexandre Herculano, a renowned novelist and historian.  His grand tomb (funded by public subscription) sits in the centre of the room, and the boards around the walls explain some of the diverse achievements of Herculano, whose career was varied and productive.

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Tomb of Alexandre Herculano, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The cock on the column, a representation of the denial of St Peter, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The cock on the column, a representation of the denial of St Peter, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Happy lion, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Merman with a rope and a creature trapped between two columns, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Merman with a rope and a creature trapped between two columns, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Pig vomiting up foliage, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Pig vomiting up foliage, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Curly-haired lion, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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The coat of arms of the Portuguese Royal family, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Along the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Along the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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A dragon sneering at a… something, in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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One of the 12 confessionals that link with the church on the other side, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal.  The monks of St Jerome had to listen to the confessions of the sailors and pilgrims.  I’m sure the former offered uncomfortable information.

The other twelve confessionals, the monastery entrance, from the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

The other twelve confessionals, the monastery entrance, from the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Bold, toothy lion, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Coy, kitty-lion, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Yet another view from the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Medallion of a man with a pointy nose and beard, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portu

Medallion of a man with a pointy nose and beard, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Interesting decoration in the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Medallion of an obese sun-head, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Medallion of an obese sun-head, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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A flying centaur-y thing in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Two alien salamanders, a dragon nibbling his wing, and a pig - all on a column in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Two alien salamanders, a dragon nibbling his wing, and a pig – all on a column in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Two cherubs brandishing a shield while stepping on dragon wings, in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Two cherubs brandishing a shield while stepping on dragon wings, in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Three confused people at the top of a column in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

A medallion showing a man with wings on his helmet, in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

A medallion showing a man with wings on his helmet, in the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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The stairs leading to the second storey of the monastery, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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A view back down, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

On the upper level of the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

On the upper level of the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Relief of a lady holding a reliquary/model church, with a dashing young man at her feet, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Startled woman looking out of a medallion, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Startled woman looking out of a medallion, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Bird with very realistic foliage in its mouth, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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The arches on the second floor of the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Relief of a sombre woman, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Relief of a sombre woman, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Relief of a woman holding scales (Justice?), Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Relief of a woman holding scales (Justice?), Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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View from the second floor of the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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View of the cloisters, with the dome of the church behind, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

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Another view of the cloisters with the dome of the church behind, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Relief of a praying woman standing on a creepy creature, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

Relief of a praying woman standing on a creepy creature, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

View towards the church from the second floor of the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

View towards the church from the second floor of the cloisters, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

View of the spires and domes, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

View of the spires and domes, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal

So In Summary

Mama Chickpea and Sister-Chickpea didn’t really feel the monastery.  They found the visuals too overwhelming in detail.  And Sister-Chickpea found those pretzel-devil skulls creepy.

I liked it.  I didn’t love it, like I’d expected, but I felt that the overwhelming detail was interesting, not least because it gave an insight into the cultural preoccupations of the successive generations that worked on the monastery.  With hindsight I’d say that the building demonstrates why hyper-fancy should be punctuated by hyper-plain – that way you can actually appreciate the workmanship and skill of the details.  I enjoy seeking out details, but even for me it turned into a bit of ‘Where’s Wally’ style hunt, which made me switch off after a point.

I would also add that given the scale of the building I expected to see more than just the cloisters.  Of course, you also gain entry from the cloisters to the church – which you can read about here.

 

 

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