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.
Sumptuous golds, exotic woods, frescoes and thousands of rare and old books, arranged on shelves up to the ceiling. In the Johannine Library of the University of Coimbra, one breathes the history of the king who ruled the great Portuguese empire in the 18th century.
Here thousands of books rest, some of which are unique in the world. The Johannine Library , previously called Casa da Livraria, began to be erected in 1717, in the middle of the century of Enlightenment, at the behest of D. João V (1689-1750), the Portuguese king who privileged knowledge and who promoted a cultural policy without parallel across the country.
In the long reign of 43 years, one of the greatest in the history of Portugal, the monarch, who had ascended the throne at the age of 17, cultivates a taste for the arts, science and literature. With the coffers of the kingdom full of gold from the new deposits discovered in Brazil, the young monarch develops at the same time a certain appetite for splendour and for luxury: his idol is Louis XIV, the sun king.
On a regal initiative, emblematic works were made such as the Mafra Convent, the Águas Livres Aqueduct, the Royal History Academy, the Prototype Lusitanian Surgical Academy and this Library, a unique Baroque masterpiece, built by the best masters in fresco painting, gilders and carvers.
Three hundred years later, this library is considered the most beautiful University Library in the world, with an invaluable collection of incalculable value. It is visited every year by 200 thousand people, even more after the University of Coimbra was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013.
The portrait of D. João V, the patron of the work, is highlighted on one of the main walls of the building in Baroque style.
The library was ordered to be built by D. João V, as well as the Library of the Convent of Mafra, which is also considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The University of Coimbra began to be built in 1717.
The rector at the time asked the King for a place to keep a library that was for sale. D. João V was not limited to building a mere library. He hired specialists and the three-story building is a symbol of a country that at the time broke with obscurantism and bet on knowledge and the arts.
The library has over 60 thousand volumes and has books published until the year 1800. The oldest is a bible from 1140, from the time of D. Afonso Henriques. The bible has four volumes and is made of leather. It is estimated that about a thousand animals have been slaughtered to do this. The library has several treasures such as the first edition of the Lusíadas, an Hebrew bible and some manuscripts, such as Almeida Garrett. These treasures are kept in the other building of the General Library that started operating in 1962. It is also in this structure that the works of the Joanine Library are consulted. About 800 volumes are requested per year for consultation.
The library is open for consultation by any citizen, but its activity, since its foundation, has been directed to the academic community.
The Bats. At first glance, you may think that these animals are a problem for the Johannine Library of the University of Coimbra. However, the bats that live there, occupying the space behind the shelves during the day and diving into the arched ceilings when the sun goes down, are not a problem.
On the contrary. The bats play a vital role in preserving the institution’s manuscripts, so much so that librarians are in no hurry to get rid of these animals.
The bats that live in the Johannine Library do not damage books and, since they are night owls, they generally do not disturb visitors who enter the library to be carried away by its charms.
In fact, the greatest danger to the book collection is the insect population. It is known that many species of insects gnaw on the paper, which can be a real danger for the very rare books that live in that library in Coimbra, which date before the 19th century.
It is in this tragic part of the narrative that bats enter, but not as villains. They are the true heroes who, at night, feed on insects, preventing them from spoiling the collection.
However, although bats are not a threat, there is a particular concern: faeces. To protect the estate, librarians cover 18th-century tables with fabric made of animal skin at night, and clean the floors every morning
In the 13th century, in the kingdom of Aragon, a princess was born who would remain in the history of Portugal forever.
Isabel, also the name of her aunt, Saint Isabel of Hungary, sister of her paternal grandmother, was most likely born in Zaragoza in the Kingdom of Aragon on 11 February 1270. She was the daughter of D. Pedro the Great and Dona Constança of Sicily. On her father’s side, blood from Hungary was flowing in her veins, while on her mother’s side she descended from Manfredo of Naples and Sicily and from Dona Brites de Savoy, her grandparents. The girl, firstborn, among several siblings, was delicate and very beautiful and since childhood, lived a good part in Barcelona, demonstrated a taste for prayer, the candid power to generate affections and reconciliations, naive kindness and promising intelligence. These virtues triggered in several Royal Houses in Europe the strong desire to have her as queen.
In 1279 D. Dinis ascended the throne of Portugal, a cultured monarch, poet, grandson of Afonso X, the Wise. The young king was nineteen and considering, among several other reasons of state, he chose to choose for his queen, Isabel, the daughter of the king of Aragon. Isabel had three suitors, however it is D. Dinis who will have her by the Portuguese throne. The bases of the nuptial contract were signed on April 24 1281.
The wedding took place, by proxy in the city of Barcelona, after a copious epistolary exchange. Just two months later the bride and groom met for the first time in Portuguese lands.
The queen received a significant donation from her husband: Óbidos, which she loved very much, Porto de Mós, Abrantes and 12 more castles.
It was in the city of Coimbra that Queen Isabel began a life full of magnanimity and sanctity with her court. Mother of Constança and Afonso, future king Afonso IV, pious, of supreme charity and devout, the life of the queen remained linked to acts of complacency, of favor through alms, offerings, care, with which she dedicated herself to the poorest.
At the same time, their pleas and diplomacy spread harmony and peace between kingdoms, relatives as well as between husband and son.
The marriage with King D. Dinis lasted about 44 years and only the death of the monarch in 1325 separated the royal spouses. When she remained widowed, D. Isabel wore, from that date, the humble habit of the religious of Santa Clara, and established her residence in Coimbra in the Paço that she had next to the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She survived her husband just over ten years, and in December 1327 she made her second will in which she dedicated her body to a tomb in the Church of the Santa Clara Monastery in Coimbra. Between the Palace and the Convent, the queen combined the duties of the Crown with devotion and piety, followed by days of prayer, works of charity, fasting and fatigue that time does not appease.
In June 1336, the queen was informed that her son was going to fight in combat with his grandson D. Afonso IV of Castile. King Afonso IV and his court were already in Estremoz, D. Isabel, mother and grandmother, aged 66, undertook a long and painful journey of dozens of leagues between Coimbra and Estremoz. The journey was tiring and exhausting, the Queen arrived very ill and died on the 4th of July 1336.
The next day, the king, complying with his mother’s latest determinations, ordered the transfer of the body to Coimbra.
Queen Dona Isabel was esteemed by the people for her works of charity, in death the same people began to venerate her remains, worshiping him believing in miracles and in her holiness. King D. Manuel asked the Holy See to beatify Queen D. Isabel, granted by Pope Leo X in 1516. In the 17th century, the tomb was opened, declaring who saw that the queen’s body was uncorrupted and with an aroma of flowers. The queen was holy. In May 1625 Pope Urban VIII solemnly canonised Queen Dona Isabel, changing her name to Queen Saint Isabel. When the coffin was transported from the Monastery of Santa Clara Velha to Monastery of Santa Clara a Nova, after the waters of the Mondego had completely flooded the old convent, the tomb was opened again and, to the amazement of all, it was verified that the body remained uncorrupted and that the smell was still the scent of flowers.
The miracle of roses
A legend said that the king, already irritated by her always walking with beggars, forbade her to give more alms. But one day, seeing her sneak out of the palace, he went after her and asked what she was hiding under his cloak.
It was bread. But she, distressed to have disobeyed the king, exclaimed:
– They’re roses, sir!
“Roses, in January?” He doubted.
With her eyes down, Queen Saint Isabel opened her lap – and the bread had turned into roses, as beautiful as they had ever been seen.