Built by the Knights Templar in 1160 along a volatile Muslim-Christian border, the Convento da Ordem de Cristo (Convent of the Order of Christ) in Tomar, Portugal, is a fantastically unique monastic fortress. Construction continued for nearly five centuries, turning the Templar stronghold into a gallery of Portuguese architectural styles.
History of Convento de Cristo
The castle of the Knights Templar of Tomar was built by Gualdim Pais, provincial Master of the Order of the Temple, around 1160. Later that century, the castle was chosen as the headquarters of the Portuguese Templars.
The Tomar castle was built as part of a Templar defense system to secure the border of the Christian kingdom against the Moors of Iberia. According to Christian chroniclers, in 1190 the castle of Tomar resisted the attacks of caliph Abu Yusuf al-Mansur, who had previously taken other Portuguese strongholds to the South. (A plate near the entrance of the nave commemorates the feat.) The round church (rotunda or charola) of the castle of Tomar was built in this early period and is Romanesque in style.
By 1314, the Templars had amassed great riches and many enemies, leading to their suppression by the pope. King Dinis, however, allowed the Templar members, assets and vocation to regroup under the new name of "Order of Christ" in 1319. The Order of Christ moved to Tomar in 1357, which became its headquarters.
Henry the Navigator became the most famous of the order's grand masters (r.1417-60), using much of their money to fund his explorations. Prince Henry gave great impulse to the pioneering Portuguese expeditions during the Age of Exploration. In Tomar, he ordered the construction of various cloisters and a Gothic nave added to the round church. He also sponsored urban improvements in the town of Tomar.
Manuel I became Grand Master of the Order of Christ in 1484 and King of Portugal in 1492. From 1510, King Manuel I ordered the rebuilding of Henry's Gothic nave in the style of the time, a highly decorative mix of Late Gothic and Renaissance that would come to be called the Manueline style. Hired as master architects for the project were the Portuguese Diogo de Arruda and the Spaniard João de Castilho.
The successor of Manuel I, King João (John) III, demilitarised the Order of Christ and made it a fully religious order with a rule based on that of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He ordered the construction of a new cloister in 1557, which is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in Portugal.
In 1581, after a succession crisis, the Portuguese nobility gathered in the Convent of Christ in Tomar and officially recognised Philip II of Spain (Philip I of Portugal) as their king. This is the begining of the Iberian Union (1581-1640), during which the Kingdoms of Portugal and Spain were united. The aqueduct of the Convent was built during the Spanish reign.
In 1810, Napoleon's troops turned the Convento de Cristo into a barracks, causing much damage in the process. Nevertheless, what remains is one of Portugal's most unique and impressive architectural monuments.
In 1983, the Convent of Christ was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List on the basis that it "represents a significant artistic achievement" - especially for its Manueline decoration - and because it is "directly and tangibly associated with events or with ideas or beliefs of outstanding universal significance" - it came to symbolize the opening of Portugal to other civilizations.
What to See at Convento de Cristo
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:
A dormitory where the monks lived in austere cells can be seen on a brief tour led by a guide. A caféwithin the Convento offers light snacks and drinks.
Quick Facts on Convento de Cristo
|Convent of the Knights of Christ · Convent of the Order of Christ · Convento da Ordem de Cristo · Convento de Cristo
|churches; monasteries; World Heritage Sites
|Visitor and Contact Information
|39.603700° N, 8.419390° W
|Terreiro de Gualdim Pais
|Jun-Sep: daily 9am-6pm;
Oct-May: daily 9am-12:30pm and 2-5pm
|View hotels near Convento de Cristo
- Frommer's Portugal, 18th edition
- Convent of the Order of Christ - Wikipedia (June 2006)
- Convent of Christ in Tomar - UNESCO World Heritage List
Map of Convento de Cristo, Tomar
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