The cloisters of Belem. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Lisbon, Portugal.

The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (also Mosteiro de Belém) is a building in Lisbon (Portugal), in the Belém district. The associated church of Santa Maria de Belém is dedicated to Mary. The Mosteiro de Belém is one of the most important buildings of the Manueline style (Manuel I, 1495-1521), a Portuguese variant of the late Gothic style that also contains some Renaissance elements. Among other things, it houses the sarcophagi of Fernando Pessoa, Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões and various Portuguese kings.

The monastery housed the Hieronymites, the Order of St. Jerome, who also gave the monastery its name, until 1834. The building survived the earthquake of 1755 without major damage. In 1983, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. On 13 December 2007, the heads of state/government of the EU states signed the Treaty of Lisbon here to reorganize the European Union.

cloisters, Belem, Portugal, Lisbon
The cloisters of Belem, Portugal.

THE CLOISTERS OF BELEM, PORTUGAL.

BELEM, of whose cloisters we give a view, is, in name, in the curious circumstances attending its erection, and in the character of its architecture, among the most noteworthy of Peninsular buildings.

As the great Conventual Church of Batalha was erected as a memorial of the most important military episode in the history of Portugal, so were the Church and Convent of Belem built by the rich and pious King Manuel I (1469–1521), in the year 1500, to sanctify and to commemorate the greatest of Portuguese maritime events.

On the site of the present magnificent church – then a low-lying sandy marsh-stood a tiny ermida, one of those solitary chapels which the traveller will find in almost every part of Portugal. This particular chapel had been erected by Prince Henry the Navigator, for the use of sailors. It was in this chapel, tradition says, that Vasco da Gama spent in religious vigil the night of the 7th of July, 1497. On the following day he set sail on the famous expedition which ended in the discovery of the passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope, which brought fame to his king and country, filled the royal treasury with the wealth of the Eastern Indies, and which gave to the national poet of Portugal the theme of one of the grandest epics produced since the new birth of letters.

The king; in gratitude, chose this site of the old Sailors’ Chapel for the erection of a gorgeous monument to the Providence to whom his piety ascribed so much glory and prosperity. He new-christened the spot Bethlehem – in Portuguese, Belem.

cloisters, Belem, Portugal, Cathedral, Mosteiro, Lisbon
Belem Cathedral, Cloisters, about 1850–1865

Photo Credit: Francis Frith (English, 1822 – 1898)
Belem Cathedral, Cloisters, about 1850–1865, Albumen silver print
16.5 × 20.8 cm (6 1/2 × 8 3/16 in.), 84.XO.1180.60
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The building itself is a marvel of luxuriant ornamentation, but a true artistic taste is repelled by an over-elaboration of detail and of foliage, ornament, and moulding, such as are never found in the simpler decoration of purer times. The composition of the edifice, the disposition and massing of light and shade, and the proportions of nave and transept, are hardly satisfying to a pure architectural taste. In the cloisters, however, fine effects of light and shade are produced, in spite of over-loaded detail, as can be observed in the illustration, and the groining of the roof is here singularly fine.

If anything were required to enhance the interest of Belem, it is that it almost entirely escaped the shock of the great earthquake; built on piles driven into the spongy soil of what was little better than a marsh, it may not improbably have owed its safety to these apparently insecure foundations, while buildings that rested on the rocky crust of the earth were overthrown and shattered.

The great poem of Camoens *) contains an allusion to Belem:-

"Whose shrine
Rests on the margin of the Western Sea.
To make the ground more honour'd, it is named
From that, the holiest in Palestine,
Where Christ had birth-God-hallowed Bethlehem."

Descriptive Article by John Latouche. Photographed by Stuart.

*) Luís Vaz de Camões (born in 1524 or 1525, probably in Coimbra or Lisbon; died 10 June 1579 or 1580 in Lisbon) is considered one of the most important poets of Portugal and the Portuguese language. His epic poem The Lusiades is an authoritative work of the Renaissance. Camões is also one of the most outstanding lyric poets in Europe. As a dramatist in Renaissance and 16th century Portugal, he stands alongside Gil Vicente, António Ribeiro and António Ferreira. Camões is revered as Portugal’s national poet. The day of his death, 10 June, is Portugal’s bank holidays.

Source: Treasure spots of the world: a selection of the chief beauties and wonders of nature and art by Walter Bentley Woodbury (1834-1885); Francis Clement Naish. London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler, Paternoster Row, 1875.

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