• Leslie

Jerónimos Monastery, Manueline Splendor in Lisbon's Belém Neighborhood

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

Jerónimos Monastery is a must see site in Lisbon Portugal and one of the world's grandest examples of Manueline architecture. Do you know what Manueline architecture is?

I didn't, until a recent geographical cure in the captivating, cobbled, and castled country of Portugal. Prepared to be ravished. Manueline architecture is so lavish, distinctive and gorgeous that I fell in love with it straight away.

It's seen in its full glory at Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon's Belém neighborhood. Jerónimos Monastery is a 500 year old UNESCO site and a mandatory destination in Lisbon.

King Manuel and his Namesake Manueline Architecture

Manueline architecture was a short lived late Gothic artistic movement that lasted 30 years in the early 16th century. It's a distinctively Portuguese style named after its key influencer, King Manuel I, who reigned from 1495 to 1521.

King Manuel was known as the "lucky king." His reign was prosperous. Loaded with cash from spice taxes, he built many grand monuments commemorating Portugal's marine dominance during the Age of Discoveries.

The Age of Discoveries is important era in Portuguese and world history. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, sea routes were developed linking Europe and Asia. The age marked the beginning of globalization, trade, and Europe’s colonization of distant lands. Manueline architecture is an ode to that great age.

16th century portrait of King Manuel I by an unknown artist

The Manueline style is lavishly and densely ornamental. It's like Flamboyant Gothic architecture on steroids, but in an incredibly appealing way.

The Manueline style is distinctively Portuguese, with a significant focus on maritime symbols in its architectural motifs. The only real religious symbol used is the cross. But that's perhaps because the cross was used on ship flags.

These marine motifs -- coral, seaweed, barnacles, ships, ropes, buoys, anchors -- were encrusted on facades, columns, and arches. Everywhere really.

the elaborate Manueline south portal of the monastery

Manueline arches aren't pointy Gothic ones anymore. They're round and semicircular.

The twisting and curvaceous Manueline style is rooted in nature. It might even be considered a precursor of organic architecture. The most famous examples of the Manueline style are: the Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Tower, Batalha Monastery, parts of the Convento de Cristo in Tomar, and Pena Palace in Sintra Portugal outside Lisbon.

History of Jerónimos Monastery: Funded By Spices

Sitting proudly on the Tagus River, the swoonful limestone-clad monastery is the toast of Belém. It was funded by spice profits, brought back from India by Vasco de Gama. The whole building is a monument, in part, to his daring and successful 1497 sea voyage to India.

Sailing was a risky business back then. The doughty Da Gama brought back cinnamon, pepper, and other spices that were used in preserving food, medicine, and (like today) just to give a zest to their meals.

The monastery was designed to trumpet Portugal's wealth and dominance. Building began in 1502, under the creative vision of Diogo de Boitac. But it was so ornate that it took nearly 100 years to complete.

Lion Fountain in the cloister courtyard -- the lion was the heraldic symbol of St. Jerome

Jerónimos Monastery was first populated by Hieronymite monks of the Order of St. Jerome, a relatively small order. St. Jerome was a 5th century scholar who translated the bible into Latin.

The monks' mission was to comfort sailors and pray for the soul of the lucky king, who apparently was covering all his bases despite his good fortune. The church was a place for sailors to attend mass before their dangerous sea voyages.

When the order was dissolved in 1833, the monastery was used as a school and orphanage, until about 1940. The monastery became a UNESCO site in 1983. It's the only church in Lisbon from the 16th century that survived the 1755 great earthquake with only minor damage.

the Church of Santa Maria at Jerónimos Monastery, which you can access for free

The Church of Santa Maria de Belém

You'll be gobsmacked when you enter the church. The modest entry belies the lofty interior. Once inside, six massive tree trunk columns soar and spread wide into the cobwebby ceiling. The ceiling itself is a masterpiece, a fanciful spiderweb of stone.

On each side of the choir, there are 16th and 17th century altars. They're decorated in the Manueline style with carved wooden sculptures covered in green and gold pigment. Onee of the altars features the terracotta figure of Saint Jerome.

Superstar navigator da Gama is interred in the lower chancel, just to the left of the entrance. His tomb is festooned with seafaring symbols.

Gothic vaults in the nave in which the structural ribs form a net-like pattern

the ornate tomb of Vasgo de Gama -- though it has a Manueline style it was crated in 1898

The Stunning Cloister of the Jerónimos Monastery

The Cloister Exterior

Built in 1516-18, the south portal on the cloister's exterior is astonishing. And it's only a periphery side door. The portal has filigree-like carvings and 40 statues of saints, scenes from Saint Jerome's life, 12 apostles, and a central figure of our Lady of Bethlehem. It's an incredible work of Manueline art.

The west portal bears a regal statue of King Manuel I. It was designed by the French sculptor Nicolau Chanterène in 1517. Recent testing showed that the portal may originally have been painted.

a Manueline door in the cloisters of Jeronimos Monastery in the Belem neighborhood of Lisbon

There’s nothing like the moment you walk into the Manueline cloister courtyard, honey colored and dripping with organic detail. You'll be wowed by the delicately scalloped arches, twisting turrets, and columns intertwined with leaves, vines, and knots. And the gargoyles and beasties on the upper facade.

The courtyard is paradise. It's the most beautiful cloister I've ever clapped eyes on.

The cloister was created with limestone from the valley of Alcantara in Spain. There are two levels of cloisters, which was unique at the time. The top level is less detailed than the bottom level.

Stroll under the vaulted ceilings in the main level, then head upstairs. Admire the elaborate details everywhere. Nothing is the same.

The courtyard is simple. There are no lavish gardens. But you can imagine the contemplative monks coming to bask in the sunshine of the serene place.

admiring the azulejo panels in the Refectory

The Cloister Interior

After you're done ogling and admiring the intricate courtyard, head inside.

The cloister's highlight is the Refectory, a vast hall that served as the dining area for the monks. It's decorated with beautiful 16th century azulejo panels. Outside the Refectory is the Lion Fountain, which the monks used to wash their hands before meals.

The Chapter Room was designed as the meeting hall for the monks. It was never used for that purpose, however, because the vaulted ceiling and interior decoration weren't completed until the 19th century. It holds the tomb of the first mayor of Belém, Alexandre Herculano.

the Chapter Room of Jeronimos Monastery

a little Vasco de Gama detail in the cloister arches

The long west wing of the monastery was formerly the monks' dormitory. Now, it houses the National Archaeological Museum, founded in 1893. Its Portugal's main archaeological research center, with artifacts from all over the country.

can you tell we loved the cloister?

Buying Tickets for the Cloister of Jerónimos Monastery

Jeronimos Monastery has a rather hefty 12 € price tag to enter. But getting a ticket is the real problem. You can’t buy tickets online, that I could find. Even if you somehow succeed in buying online tickets, the guards insist that the vouchers be printed for scanning.

There's a long queue at the main entrance. At least there was in late April, somewhat to my surprise. I can't imagine what it would be like in summer.

beautiful arches in the Manueline cloister

But don’t be fooled and waste time. There's actually a separate line for purchasing tickets off to the left of the main entrance. And there's a huge line there as well. You purchase tickets via a machine, and some people were befuddled by it. It can all be very time consuming.

If you're visiting in high season, you may want to skip the interior and just admire the exterior. But the cloister is so amazing and appealing, it'd be a shame to miss it. It's mostly worth the tortuous wait.

To speed up the arduous ticket process, my daughter and I split up. She stood in the main entrance line while I stood in the ticket line.

I didn't know this at the time, but if you're willing to pay 2 € extra, you can skip one line. Instead of waiting in the monastery's ticket line, head over to the nearby Archaeological Museum. There, you can walk right in and buy a combined 14 € ticket for both the museum and the monastery. 16 € will also get you into Belem Tower.

the ticket line is on the left. on the right are the lines for the church and the cloister

If I had a do over, I would definitely have used that approach. I also wouldn’t have gone first thing in the morning. (Though that made parking easy.) I would visit an hour or so before it closes when the day trippers have dispersed and gone back to the historic core of Lisbon.

The equally stunning Manueline church is free. There’s a separate line for that too (to the right of the line at the main entrance), but it moved much more quickly.

Jerónimos Monastery will steal your heart. Its Manueline architecture is truly unique, the stuff of dreams. This is one of Lisbon's greatest treasures, a must see sight on your Lisbon itinerary.

Other Practical Information and Tips for Visiting Jerónimos Monastery:

Address: Praça do Império 1400-206 Lisboa

Hours: 10:00 am to 6:30 pm Tue-Sun (5:30 pm Oct to May). The first Sunday of the month is free.

Entry fee: 12 €, combined entry with the Archaeological museum is 14 €.

Getting there: The monastery is about 6 miles from Lisbon. Take Tram #15 from the main Praça square in Baixa. It runs every 10-15 minutes and the ride takes about 25 minutes. The HoHo bus tour also goes to Belem. You can also use the city buses with the numbers 727, 28, 729, 714 or 751. It's also an easy 10 minute drive.

If you'd to visit this must see Lisbon site, pin it for later.

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