Santa Clara a velha: ruins of an important monastery in Coimbra

By : April 11th, 2021 Places and Monuments 0 Comments

The ruins of the monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha are located in the city of Coimbra, Portugal. The monastery was built in the 14th century on the left bank of the Mondego River, but was abandoned in the 17th century due to frequent floods. The well-preserved Gothic ruins of the monastery were found in the late 20th century, more than 300 years after being abandoned by the nuns.

 The Monastery of Santa Clara was built at the behest of Isabella of Aragon, the Holy Queen, to replace a small convent of Poor Clares founded in 1286. The construction of the temple, whose plan is the work of the architect Domingos Domingues, who previously had worked at the Alcobaça Monastery, ended in 1330.

The monastery of Santa Clara in Coimbra was built in the 1280s by Mor Dias as the home of the Order of the Poor Clares. This ancient monastery was abandoned in 1311, only to be used again in 1314 by Isabella, wife of King Dinis. Isabella was admired for her pious and charitable nature, and her devotion led to her canonization in 1626. The Queen’s palace, of which only ruins remain, was located near the monastery.

The works promoted by the Queen began in 1316 at the same point as the previous foundation and gave rise to the ensemble that exists today. The first architect associated with the monastery was Domingos Domingues, who had worked on the cloisters of the Alcobaça monastery. His work was continued after 1326 by Estêvão Domingues, who had worked on the cloisters of the Lisbon cathedral. The church was consecrated in 1330 and was influenced by the Alcobaça building in its floor plan and many other architectural details. Elizabeth died in 1336 and was buried in the monastery in an imposing Gothic tomb. A large cloister was built on the south side of the church in the 14th century.

Already in 1331 the monastery and the church had been flooded by the nearby Mondego river. Due to its location, the monastery was repeatedly flooded by the river in the following centuries, and the nuns of the monastery raised the floor level of the monastic buildings to reduce the damage caused by the floods. Despite the problems, the monastery was often enriched by donations. At the beginning of the 16th century, under King Manuel I, the church was decorated with Sevillian tiles and several painted altarpieces.

The complex is distinguished from its architecture by the size of the church and cloister and by the stone vault that covers three naves of similar size. In the 17th century, King D. João IV had a new convent built on an elevated point of the city, which took the name of Santa Clara-a-Nova, and ordered the nuns to abandon the structure. The last nuns left the complex in 1677. The Gothic tombs of Queen Isabella and other royal princesses were moved to the new building.

Over the centuries the ancient monastery fell into disrepair and was partially covered by the marshes of the Mondego river. Its historical and architectural importance led it to be declared a national monument in 1910, and some conservation works were carried out in the first half of the 20th century.

At the end of the twentieth century, the impressive restoration works brought to light the structures and a vast and diversified heritage of finds. Once again open to visits, the Monastery represents a recreational area in a large open-air path that includes the church and the restored archaeological structures.


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