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

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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.

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 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 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.

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).

Back into the cloisters… and along the way we stop off at the Chapter Room – which was never used as such.  It was completed during the 19th century restorations and 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.

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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