A Church to Match the Monastery: Jeronimos’ Church of St Mary of Belém

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Church of St Mary of Belém, Igreja Sta. Maria Belém, Lisbon, Portugal

The first view you get of the inside of the church is from the viewing platform at the back, which you reach from the staircase leading to the second floor of the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery.  You look down on the nave and get to really appreciate the dinky, thin columns holding up the ceiling and the general structure of the church.

If you’re a megalomaniac, you feel a bit like a god.

Diogo Boitac started the construction of the church, but it was completed by Juan de Castilho.  It’s a bit strange, because the walls and ceilings of the building are plain, so the ornate columns seem misplaced somehow.  At the same time this contrast perhaps helps to show off the inventiveness of the Manueline style to better effect than the never-ending wealth of decoration in the monastery.

The treasure of the whole Jeronimos complex, for me, was this amazing depiction of the Crucifixion.  Not only is the workmanship stunning, but against the background of the church, it has an ethereal quality to it that adds to its profound effect.

The impressive Choir Stalls are a little hard to see, as you can’t get close to them, but what is visible is lovely.  They were designed by Diogo de Torralva and made by Diogo de Çarça for the Hieronymite monks, who in following the rules of St. Augustine, spent seven hours a day here.

Having admired the church from above, you get to visit the ground level.  After exiting the monastery, you go back past the ticket office and enter the church through its ornate main entrance – which you may, or may not, be able to admire, depending on the crowds.

You walk around the church anti-clockwise.  The first item of interest is the tomb of Luís de Camões, the illustrious poet who chronicled the Age of Discoveries.  He died in 1580, but his remains were placed here, in this rather sumptuous monument, in 1894.  It is a beautiful piece, evoking the Manueline style of the church and monastery.

Numerous royals are still buried in the church, including Dom Henrique, Manuel I, João III and King Sebastião.  All the tombs are held up by cute little dumpy elephants.

This high altar was commissioned by Queen Catarina (Catherine of Austria), the wife of João III.  It was designed by the masterbuilder Jerónimo de Ruão (Jean de Rouen), whose classical style is quite a contrast to the rest of the church.  The paintings are by Lourenço de Salzedo (1570/4) and show the ‘Passion of Christ’ and the ‘Adoration of the Magi’.  The silver tabernacle was by João de Sousa (1674/8) and commemorates the momentous victory at the Battle of Montes Claros which led to Portuguese Independence in 1665.

The tombs of the founder, King Manuel, his son João III and their respective wives, Queens Maria and Catarina are all buried in the sarcophagi held up by the elephants.  Near the exit there is the tomb of Vasco da Gama, whose remains were transferred to Costa Mota’s new construction in 1880.

So In Summary

The complex of the church and monastery of Jeronimos is perhaps one of the most important in Lisbon.  Its architectural influence and its role as a resting place for Portuguese royals and other historical figures, make it culturally significant and therefore worth visiting.  However, whether the style speaks to you or not will affect your perception of the experience.

Further Information

There is a fee to enter the complex, which includes the monastery and church.  It is free with the Lisbon Card.

Be aware that there can be extremely long queues and even if you get there for opening time, you’ll be standing for quite a while.

The complex has its own website, available in English: www.mosteirojeronimos.gov.pt

How to Get There

Lisbon’s local transport is run by these people, and their site is English – you need to get off at Belém – if you’re at all worried about being at the wrong place, you’ll see flocks of tourists and a great big white building and know you’re there: www.carris.pt

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