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.
Today is the day dedicated to Art and I decided to write an article about one of the Portuguese works of art that I love the most.
It is the most famous work of Portuguese jewelry, for its artistic merit and historical significance: the Monstrance of Belém, exhibited at the MNAA (National Museum of Ancient Art) in Lisbon.
Ordered by King D. Manuel I for the Monastery of Santa Maria de Belém (Better known as Jerónimos Monastery), the Ostensory of Belém is attributable to the goldsmith and playwright Gil Vicente.
It was made with the gold of the tribute of the Régulo de Quilôa (in present Tanzania), in a sign of vassalage to the crown of Portugal, brought by Vasco da Gama on the return of his second trip to India, in 1503, it is a good example of the taste for pieces conceived as microarchitecture in the final Gothic.
Intended to guard and expose the consecrated host to the veneration of the faithful, it presents, in the center, the twelve apostles kneeling, hovering over them a oscillating dove, in white enameled gold, symbol of the Holy Spirit, and, in the upper plane, the figure of God the Father, who sustains the globe of the Universe, thus materializing, in the ascension sense, the representation of the Most Holy Trinity.
The armillary spheres, symbols of King Manuel I, that define the knot, as if to unite two worlds (the terrain, which spreads at the base, and the supernatural, which rises in the upper structure), appear as the maximum consecration of royal power in this historic moment of oceanic expansion, confirming the spirit of the King’s company that was forever linked to the era of Portuguese maritime expansion.
A work that leaves truly speechless for the artistic quality, the materials and the perfection of its realization in the smallest details.
The MNAA preserves this and many representative works of Portuguese and international art; a place that art lovers cannot miss. Even better if accompanied by an art historian in love with this Museum 😉
So, what do you expect to book a visit with me?
In 1514, Afonso de Albuquerque, founder of the Portuguese Empire in the East and governor of the Portuguese Indies, wanted to build a fortress in Diu, a city located in the kingdom of Cambaia, ruled by King Modofar. Afonso de Albuquerque was authorized by King D. Manuel I, to send an embassy to the king of Cambaia, requesting authorization to build the fortress. King Modofar did not give in to the request, but, appreciating the offerings received, he gave Afonso de Albuquerque a rhinoceros. As it was impossible to keep him in Goa, Afonso de Albuquerque decided to send the rhino to King D. Manuel I, as a gift.
The arrival of the animal in Lisbon caused a lot of curiosity, not only in Portugal but in the rest of Europe, mainly because of its appearance – the rhino weighed more than two tons and had a thick and rough skin forming three large folds that gave it the strange appearance of a armour. It was the first rhinoceros alive on European soil since the III century.
The rhino, which was called Ganda, was installed in the park of the Palácio da Ribeira. Reminding the king of the Roman stories about the deadly hatred between elephants and rhinos, D. Manuel I, who had a small elephant as a pet, decided to check if this story was true. Thus, a fight was organized between the two animals, attended by the king, the queen and their chaperones, as well as many other important guests. The event was organized in the terreiro do paço, nowadays Praça do Commercio and stages were set up to watch this show.
When the two animals met face to face, the elephant, who seemed to be the most nervous, panicked and fled as soon as the rhino started to approach, destroying the stages and spreading the panic among the people.
In 1515, King D. Manuel I decided to organize a new extraordinary embassy to Rome, to guarantee the support of the Pope, following the growing successes of Portuguese navigators in the East, and with a view to consolidating the kingdom’s international prestige. Among the offers he decided to send the rhino, who wore a green velvet collar with roses and golden carnations. The ship left Lisbon in December 1515.
A violent storm arose off Genoa, the ship having sunk, the entire crew perishing. The rhino, although he knew how to swim, ended up drowning, because of the bonds. However, it was possible to recover his body. Upon hearing the news, D. Manuel I ordered the rhino to be stuffed and sent to the Pope, as if nothing had happened. But this animal was not as successful with the Pope as the elephant had previously done!
In Portugal the rhinoceros was immortalized, being represented in the Monastery of Alcobaça, where there is a naturalistic representation of the full-body animal, with the function of a gargoyle, in the Silence Cloister. It was also designed by the great printing master Albrecht Dürer, based on a letter from a Portuguese merchant that contained a drawing of the rhino.
And a small rhinoceros is also immortalized in the Belém tower. Where? You come with me to visit it and we will discover it.