Jeronimos Monastery - some questions, Lisbon, Portugal

When we visit the Belém area, in Lisbon, Portugal, we see a set of monuments dominating the landscape, the Jeronimos Monastery is one of those monuments.

Among the many important dates for this monument, I would like to highlight two that seem fundamental to me:

    • January 6, 1502 – The first stone is laid for the construction of this magnificent monument.
    • Late 16th century – By this time, the construction of the Jeronimos Monastery will have ended, despite subsequent improvements or occasional interventions.

Considering these dates, I believe it will be interesting to think about some questions that help us start understanding this monastery.

These are the questions/subjects I will try to answer here.

    1. What was in this place before the Jeronimos Monastery was built?
    2. Why was the monastery built?
    3. Who were the main supporters of the construction?
    4. Some interesting dates from the construction of the monument to the present.

So, let’s go to the questions and answers.

What was in this place before the monastery was built?

Prior to the construction of the Jeronimos Monastery, in the area between what is now known as Belém and the mouth of the Ninha River, which we now know as the Jamor River, it was a wide estuary area that, being sheltered from the north winds, was suitable for anchoring.

Thus, it served as a point on the Tagus where boats, which entered or left, could wait for the most favorable conditions.

Here there was a village with the name Restelo, which was inhabited by free Moors or Moorish slaves and also by negros of the most diverse conditions.

The village must, in everything, looked like a Muslim site.

There were two streams that no longer exist today: the Pocinhos stream and the Gafos stream. These streams possibly supplied the population and vessels with freshwater.

From this anchorage, the vessels left for the Conquest of Ceuta, on 25th July 1415.

Having registered a great activity linked to the river here after the referred date, due to the great increase in nautical activity promoted by Infante D. Henrique, the village grew in number of inhabitants and vessels served.

Keeping in mind the great importance that religious life had for the people of that time, in this area, with a growing number of people, there was no cemetery or church.

Therefore, in view of this need, Infante D. Henrique, or Henry the Navigator as most of the world knows him, ordered a church dedicated to Santa Maria de Belém to be built and that church to be incorporated into the Military Order of Christ.

It is worth mentioning here that Infante D. Henrique was the General Administrator of the Order of Christ from 1420.

Nowadays there are no remains from this church, except an image of a saint who was sent to another location.

Events in this church that should be highlighted:

    • Vasco da Gama wakes here the night before he left for India on the 8th July 1497;
    • In this church Pedro Álvares Cabral attended Mass before leaving on the trip that took him to discover Brazil on March 8th, 1500.

Why was the monastery built?

There is no lack of theories about the reasons that led to the construction of this monument and the reasons that I explain here are within this controversy.

Manuel I, the Portuguese king who reigned between October 1495 and December 1521, was the nephew of Infante D. Henrique (Henry the Navigator) and Master of the Order of Christ.

Thus, when D. Manuel transferred the collective from the Church of Santa Maria de Belém, that was in possession of the Order of Christ to another location, he compensated them in due proportion.

At the site of the former church, a monastery was to be built, which he will hand over to the Jeronimos monks, considering his great devotion to São Jerónimo and because at that time, this religious order was highly dynamic and was more adjusted to the needs of the time.

The grandiosity of the monument, however, is related to the divine thanks for the success of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India.

Who were the main supporters of the construction?

The answer is simple, it was D. Manuel I.

However, D. Manuel died in 1521 and, as previously mentioned, the construction of the monastery occupied almost the entire 16th century.

For this reason, D. João III, succeeding D. Manuel I, inherited this task that he continued, but with less stamina since his great project was the magnificent Convento de Cristo in Tomar, a monument about which I will write in another post.

Even so, the works continued with D. João III who died in 1557, passing the task to D. Sebastião, his grandson and successor.

It is during D. Sebastião reign, and later, that the monument suffers from the same problems as the rest of the nation. All of these problems had an origin: lack of continuity of succession.

After the death of D. João III, in 1557, there was a period of two different regencies until D. Sebastião, in 1568, already reaching the age of majority, could reign.

Sebastião’s reign ended in 1578, with his disappearance in Alcácer Quibir and from that time until the end of the century, Portugal had three more rulers, including two Spanish kings.

This to explain the little importance that the monument had during the referred governments.

But, returning to the question, despite the remaining listed rulers, during the period of construction of the monastery, D. Manuel I was the greatest supporter of this monastery’s construction.

Some interesting facts from the end of the construction of the monastery to the present.

1755 – During the Great Earthquake the building resisted quite well. However, in the following year, there was a new, milder earthquake that caused some damage, among which, one of the columns of the church fell causing the fall of part of the dome.

1675 – A valuable tabernacle was added to the collection, following the fulfillment of a promise made by D. Afonso IV, for his success in the Battle of Montes Claros.

Between the end of the 17th century and the mid-18th century, the mausoleums of several important personalities were placed in the monastery church.

1834 – With the extinction of religious orders, it was the coup de grace that opened the wound for definitive bleeding. During the following decades, the monastery was stripped of its goods, leaving only the magnificent walls and, even so, no longer serving the original purpose.

1907 – Classified as a National Monument.

1983 – It is one of the sites of the XVII European Exhibition of Art, Science and Culture with the exhibition “Portuguese navigations and their consequences”

1983 – Inscription at UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Today, the Jeronimos Monastery is one of the most visited monuments in Portugal.

With this text I hope to have answered some questions about the Jeronimos Monastery.

However, there is so much to say about this monument that I barely scratched the surface and I will return to this subject in a near future.

Carpe diem

David Monteiro

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