Portal. Convento de Cristo

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The portal of the church, designed by João de Castilho around 1530, is richly sculpted in the Manueline style. To the right of the portal is the 12th-century charola or rotunda, with strong buttresses, round windows and a bell-tower. Like all Templar round churches, its shape was modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock (which was mistakenly believed to be part of the Temple of Solomon) in Jerusalem.

Inside, the charola is opulently decorated with paintings and sculptures. Eight Romanesque columns create an arched ambulatory. The capitals depict vegetal and animal motifs, as well as a Daniel in the Lions’ Den scene. The style of the capitals shows the influence of artists working on Coimbra Cathedral, which was being built at the same time. Strong Moorish and Byzantine influences mingle with the western styles, creating a fusion of east and west such as that seen in the Mezquita de Córdoba, Spain or Aachen Cathedral, Germany.

Manueline sculptures and paintings were added during a renovation sponsored by King Manuel I starting in 1499. The murals, depicting the life of Christ, are attributed to Manuel’s court painter, the Portuguese Jorge Afonso. The pillars of the central octagon and the walls of the ambulatory bear polychromed statues of saints and angels under exuberant Late Gothic canopies (attributed to Flemish sculptor Olivier de Gand and the Spaniard Hernán Muñoz).

On the other side, to the left of the portal, is the 16th-century rectangular Manueline nave that replaced Henry’s Gothic version. A large interior arch connects the Romanesque round church to the Manueline nave. The latter is covered in a fine rib vault and is covered with abundant Manueline motifs, including gargoyles, Gothic pinnacles, statues, and ropes of the type used in the ships during the Age of Discovery. Look also for the cross of the Order of Christ (+) and the armillary sphere, emblem of King Manuel I and of Portugal. The nave ends in a choir that once had Manueline stalls, but these were among the casualties of the invading Napoleonic troops.

Perhaps the finest example of Manueline stonework at the Convent of Christ is the west window, referred to as the Window of the Chapter House (Janela do Capítulo). It is so richly sculpted that it can be overwhelming to the eye at first, but a closer look reveals a wealth of meaningful and carefully-planned details, all illustrating Portugal’s great status as a sea power. Among the sculptures are ropes, knots, full sails, mariners with the tools of their craft, and various seascapes. A human figure in the bottom of the window probably represents the designer, Diogo de Arruda.

The monastery’s eight cloisters embrace a variety of styles. The most notable, a two-tiered structure dating from the 12th century, exhibits perfect symmetry, the almost severe academic use of the classical form that distinguishes the Palladian school. Other notable cloisters include:

•Claustro de D. João III (Cloister of John III, or main cloister): Started under King John III of Portugal and finished during the reign of Philip I of Portugal (Philip II of Spain). The first architect was the Spaniard Diogo de Torralva, who began the building work in 1557, only finished in 1591 by Philip II’s architect, the Italian Filipo Terzi. This magnificent, two-storey cloister connects the dormitory of the monks to the church, and is considered one of the most important examples of mannerist architecture in Portugal. The two levels are connected by four elegant helicoidal stairways, located at each corner of the cloisters.
•Claustro da Lavagem (Washing Cloister): Two-storey Gothic cloister built around 1433 under Henry the Navigator. This is where the monks washed their robes.
•Claustro do Cemitério (Cloister of the Cemetery): Also built under Henry the Navigator, this gothic cloister was the burial site for the knights and monks of the Order. The elegant twin columns of the arches have beautiful capitals with vegetal motifs, and the walls of the ambulatory are decorated with 16th-century tiles. In a manueline tomb (circa 1523) rests Diogo da Gama, brother of navigator Vasco da Gama.
•Claustro de Santa Bárbara (Saint Barbara’s Cloister): Built in the 16th century. The Chapter House Window and the West façade of the manueline nave of the church is visible from this cloister.
A dormitory where the monks lived in austere cells can be seen on a brief tour led by a guide. A café within the Convento offers light snacks and drinks.

Artwork Comments

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