It was with some hesitation that I scheduled in our visit to the monastery as I had come across numerous reviews mentioning large crowds and even the queue for tickets lasting an hour or more. Not my type of attraction, and certainly not MrB’s, even if it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We decided if there was a ticket queue then we’d simply visit another trip, but to minimise the risk of that happening I planned carefully. We arrived within 45minutes of the doors opening and took the bus not the tram to Belem. And it worked! Not only was there no ticket queue but we both got a seat on the bus and the monastery was relatively quiet inside when we arrived.
I was so glad as the monastery is even more extraordinary inside than it is outside, there was even a live angel on a step ladder. I took so many pictures there are going to be a couple more posts, but today I thought I’d focus on the cloisters, the inner quadrangle and of course that angel!
The Monastery began life in the 16th century when an Iberian order of monks – Hieronymite – closely linked to the Portuguese Royal family, transferred to Santa Maria de Belém from a monastery in Sintra. Work on their new chapel – Capela de São Jerónimo – was ongoing and the cloisters were nothing more than plans at the time of their move. Their Refectory though had been completed which probably explains the timing of the move! What I found really fascinating was that in 1524 João III prohibited any construction which may obstruct the view of the monastery from the sea!
Superb planning decision by João III as the view of the monastery from the river are truly stunning. He was also a great international diplomat, and the Portuguese Empire grew significantly during his reign. However his extremely pious beliefs led him also to make many poor decisions – he was the monarch who formally established the Inquisition in Portugal. I was going to share more on the Inquisition portugaise but after Monday’s events in Manchester, I simply feel too sad to reflect on historical and continuing atrocities which are apparently undertaken in the name of ‘religion’. Instead I am going to keep the focus on the beauty of this royal monastery. I know I have a thing about cloisters but these ones are particularly incredible.
The ground floor of the cloister was completed by 1520, and the upper floor completed by 1544. Further work on the cloisters took place in 1570 and the Monastery went under significant changes in the 19th century but most of what you see today in the cloisters is what was originally designed. Amazingly the cloisters were unaffected by the 1755 earthquake.
The detailing of the carvings is stunning. There are fantastic beasts, the natural world, religious symbols and royal imagery. Even UNESCO gets quite excited: Its very rich ornamentation derives from the exuberance typical of Manueline art. No wonder my camera and I got carried away!
The craftsmanship is a testament to the extraordinary power, knowledge and wealth of Portugal in the 16th century. I certainly recommend a visit here, but time your visit well if you really want to appreciate it. I will be back with pictures of the refectory and also the upper choir, but for now I must go. But before I do . . . . . the angel. As you can see he was on a rather large stepladder!
Unfortunately as we are unable to understand Portuguese we were unable to determine the story but it looked like a fabulous performance and certainly brought a smile to my face. As I hope it has to yours!