The Jeronimos Monastery is the most famous and visited monument in Lisbon, and not only is it an exceptional architectural work but also an important symbol of Portuguese identity and culture.
This masterpiece of the Manueline style, an exquisitely Portuguese artistic expression that mixes late-Gothic and Renaissance elements and Arabesque elements, was founded by the will of King Don Manuel I near the place where Henry the Navigator, a key figure for the overseas expansion of Portugal , had built a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Belém, Our Lady of Bethlehem. When the sailors were about to make a long journey, they went to this church to entrust themselves to the Madonna. Vasco da Gama was no exception before his expedition to the Indies. It was then that King D Manuel promised, if successful, to build an even larger church on that church, and then decided to turn it into his family’s pantheon.
It was built in 1502 on a project by the architect Diogo Boytac and dedicated to San Geronimo; many Portuguese, French and Spanish artists collaborated in its realization. The order of Jeronimos was dissolved in 1833: from then until 1940 the monastery was used as a school and orphanage; in 1907 it was declared a national monument and in 1983 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its five centuries of history, the monastery has attracted poets, navigators, kings and artists and was the burial place of nobles and explorers: today it is one of the main tourist attractions of Lisbon.
The Gothic-looking Church of Santa Maria houses the cenotaphs of Vasco de Gama and the poet Luís Vaz de Camões (whose bones were transported here); the choir is also of considerable value, with finely carved wooden seats.
The cloister is probably the monastery’s most amazing attraction: one of the most beautiful in Europe, it is square in shape and measures 55 meters on each side, with two rows of windows along all sides. It is a triumph of Manueline decorations, the fantastic creatures of the upper balustrade and the symbols of the era in which the cloister was built, such as the armillary sphere and the cross of the military Order.
The entrance portal, although smaller than the south portal, is the most important: symbolically oriented to the east, it is the access point to the church, perfectly in line with the main altar. Designed by Boitaca, it was built by Nicolau Chanterenne in 1517. On both sides of the door there are statues of a monarch in the respectful act of prayer: Don Manuel I with San Geronimo on the left and Queen Maria with San Giovanni Battista on the right. On the upper part it is possible to see three niches with sculptural groups depicting the Annunciation, the birth of Christ and the adoration of the Magi. It is difficult to believe that the south door is, technically speaking, only a secondary entrance: its magnificent decorations make it the element of greatest visual impact of the entire facade. The central figure represents Our Lady of Belém with the Child, at the bottom the saints and apostles and at the top a statue of the Archangel Michael dominates the entire composition.