The Church and Monastery of Saint Vincent: a superb 16th century Italian style monument in the heart of Lisbon!


04 May
04May

The primitive building

A Monastery consecrated to Saint Vincent was initially founded by the first Portuguese King, Afonso Henriques, after the Christian conquest of Lisbon to the Muslims, in 1147. The site chosen by King Afonso Henriques was located outside the town’s defensive walls close to the place where the Flemish and German crusaders had installed their army camp during the siege of Lisbon. The crusaders were on their way to battle the Muslims in the Middle East, during the Second Crusade (1147-1150), but stopped in Lisbon and helped the first King of Portugal to retake the city.

The Monastery was occupied by the Augustinian Canons, an important Religious Order that received several donations from other Portuguese Kings such as Sancho I or Afonso II, descendants of the first King of Portugal. This group of monks occupied the Monastery until 1834, when the Religious Orders were suppressed and their patrimony was confiscated by the Portuguese Liberal Government.

Saint Vincent: the patron saint of Lisbon

According to the legend, Saint Vincent was born in Zaragoza (currently, located in the northeast of Spain). Vincent refused to worship the Pagan Gods and as a result of this he was tortured by the Romans during the persecutions against the Christian communities ordered by Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD). His body was thrown into the sea and miraculously his mortal remains were transported on a boat, which was protected by two crows, and arrived at Lisbon in the end of the 12th century. Saint Vincent became the patron saint of the Portuguese Royal Family and of the city of Lisbon. Throughout the centuries he was also worshiped by fishermen and by everyone involved in maritime activities. During the Middle Ages the saint’s relics were initially sheltered in the primitive Monastery, which became a pilgrimage site.

The Monastery of Saint Vincent

The current Church and Monastery of Saint Vincent were built by order of the Habsburg King Filipe I, in 1582, who was simultaneously King of Portugal and Spain. The new building was consecrated to Saint Vincent and Saint Sebastian. Filipe I (1527-1598) was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V (1500-1558) and the grandson of the Portuguese King, Manuel I (1469-1521). He became King of Portugal in 1581 and was acclaimed in the Convent of Christ in Tomar /blog/tomar-and-the-convent-of-christ-an-incredible-journey-through-portuguese-history, because there was no direct heir to the Portuguese throne. Filipe I lived for at least two years in Lisbon and tried to respect the privileges and the autonomy of the Portuguese nobility who had supported him. Between 1581 and 1640 the Kingdoms of Portugal and Spain were reunited and Madrid became the capital of this gigantic Colonial Empire (which included the Spanish South America, the Portuguese Brazil, the Portuguese Colonies in Africa and in the Orient and the Spanish Philippines). It was probably one of the biggest Colonial Empires that ever existed in the History of mankind and surely that the trade of gold, slaves, silver and spices helped to fund a lot of monumental buildings like this one.

The construction of the Monastery

The construction of this new religious building started in 1583 and only ended in the beginning of the 18th century during the reign of the Portuguese King João V (1689-1750). There were several architects involved: Juan of Herrera (1530-1597), responsible for designing a great part of the Escorial Monastery (where King Filipe I is currently buried), Baltazar Álvares (1560-1630) or Filippo Terzi (1520-1597) who followed the Classical Architectural style defended by other architects such as Vitruvius (a Roman architect  who lived in the 1st century BC) or Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554). The stone used to build this fantastic building was extracted from São Sebastião da Pedreira, which was at the time located in the outskirts of Lisbon.

The church

The Saint Vincent’s church was built between 1583 and 1629 strongly influenced by the Italian Mannerist style. It was one of the most impressive churches of Lisbon at the time. The façade is sober and austere: we can clearly see that some architectural principles such as harmony, symmetry and balance are present in the entire building.

At the centre, between the two bell towers, we can see the statues of Saint Vincent, Saint Agustin and Saint Sebastian. There are 4 other statues in both towers: Saint Antonio, Saint Dominic, Saint Bruno and Saint Norbert, sculpted in the beginning of the 18th century by the Italian sculptor Bellini. The influence of the Italian art in Portugal during the reign of King João V, between 1706 and 1750, was notorious: the King was fascinated by the Italian culture and commissioned many works of art as well as luxurious horse carriages to several Italian artists. /blog/lisbon-and-the-portuguese-monarchy-remembering-the-everyday-life-of-the-last-royal-family

The church was built in the form of a Greek cross with a single nave and several side chapels, some of them with glamorous marble columns and gilded wooden altars such as the Chapel consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ or to our Lady of Conception. The baldachin present in the main altar, which was done on the workshop of the Portuguese sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro (1731-1822), was inspired by the Baldachin of the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome that was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1634).

The renovation of the Monastery by King João V

In the 18th century the Monastery of Saint Vincent suffered a profound renovation. It was a period of time when the diamonds and the gold from Brazil (the most important colonial territory) arrived massively at Lisbon.  In 1720 the German architect Ludwig, known as Ludovice in Portugal (1673-1752), was in charged by King João V of enlarging and embellishing the building.

In the so called “Portaria” you will see several glazed tile panels depicting Portuguese Kings such as Afonso Henriques, conquering the cities of Lisbon and Santarém to the Muslims, in 1147; Sebastião, who died in the battle of Alcácer-Quibir in 1578 (a tragedy that caused a succession crisis); and João IV, Pedro II and João V, 3 Kings who belong to the last Royal dynasty: the Bragança. The ceramic tile panels were made by Manuel dos Santos (one of the best artists at the time) while the ceiling’s paintings were painted by the Italian artist Vincenzo Baccarelli (1710).

The sacristy

The sacristy is in my opinion one of the highlights of this Monastery! It is located between both cloisters and there is no connection with the church. It was probably designed by the Portuguese architect Luís Nunes Tinoco (1642-1719) in the reign of King Pedro II (1683-1706). The influence of the Italian decoration is once again present in the exquisite multicolored marble walls that depict tree branches and flowers.

During the reign of King Pedro II and of King João V the use of multicolored stones in many Portuguese churches was a sign of opulence and luxury. The marble medallion with the relief bust of King João V above the entrance door – which was probably executed by the French sculptor Claude Laprade (1687-1740) – symbolizes the Royal patronage of the Monastery in the beginning of the 18th century. The chests made of exotic Brazilian wood (jacaranda) contrast perfectly with the profuse floral and vegetal decoration of the marble walls.

The tile panels: a precious collection!

The Monastery of Saint Vincent has the best collection of baroque ceramic glazed tiles in Portugal: approximately 100 thousand white and cobalt blue tiles cover the cloister’s and staircases’ walls, all of which were produced in the Lisbon’s workshops from the end of the 17th century to first half of the 18th century!

Some of the best Portuguese artists participated in the production of these stunning glazed tile panels such as Manuel dos Santos, Master PMP (nobody knows who the artist was but it is known that he signed his works with that name) and Valentim de Almeida (1692-1779). The use of cobalt blue was probably motivated by the Chinese pottery and the Delft blue earthenware that were at the time arriving to Portugal and that were seen as luxurious objects by many noble families. These blue and white figurative tiles replaced the former green, blue, white and yellow tile panels that copied the patterns of the oriental tapestries (Indian and Chinese) that were arriving to Lisbon one century before.

There is a strong possibility that the origin of the Portuguese word “Azulejo” comes from the Arabic word – al zuleycha - which means “small polished stone”. Originally, the “azulejos” were small multicolored pieces of glazed ceramic that were used in the exterior walls of mosques for decoration and to reflect sunlight.

The production of ceramic tiles was most likely introduced in Portugal during the time of the Islamic colonization of the country – between approximately 711 and 1249. After the conquest of the Algarve region by the Portuguese King, Afonso III, in 1249, to the Muslims and the subsequent Christian domination of the entire kingdom, tiles continued to be produce and use to decorate the interior of religious buildings or Royal and noble palaces. Tile panels could be easily cleaned, they were permanent and durable and there was no need to purchase tapestries and hanged them in the walls.

The tile workshops normally belonged to a family and were located in cities or near streams because of the abundance of water and of clay soils. These stunning tile panels with monumental framings depict hunting expeditions, biblical and mythological scenes, battle or chivalry scenes, Baroque gardens with fountains and vases with flowers, walled towns, castles, river bridges, rural scenes, fishing scenes or chinoiseries (images of oriental fauna or people in their daily activities, for instance). Many of these tile panels were inspired in some European drawings of Palaces and Baroque gardens from architects and engravers like Jean Lepautre (1618-1682).

The fables of La Fontaine

In the Monastery there is another fabulous and rare collection of 38 tile panels depicting excerpts of some of the famous fables written by the great French writer, Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), such as “The old man and his sons” or “The cat, the weasel and the young rabbit”. These fables were written to moralize the French society in the 17th century. The tile panels were produced between 1770 and 1790, in the neo baroque style, by the Portuguese painter Francisco Jorge da Costa and they used to be located in the cloister’s ground floor.

The use of excerpts taken from the fables of La Fontaine is quite rare: the images depicted were inspired in the drawings of Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), a French Rococo painter and illustrator. Currently, they are exhibited in the cloister’s upper gallery.

The Pantheon of the Bragança Royal family

The Monastery also has an enormous symbolic importance because it holds the tombs of the last Portuguese Royal family: the Bragança. The decision of transforming the Monastery into a Royal Pantheon was taken by King João IV, who was responsible for restoring the Independence of Portugal against the Spanish Habsburgs in 1640 and the founder of the Bragança Royal dinasty. His son, King Pedro II put this in practice: he commissioned the construction of his father’s tomb to the architect João Nunes Tinoco (1631-1690).  It is the first one on the right. You will easily notice it because it is sumptuous and a masterpiece of the Portuguese Baroque sculpture! The Royal tombs were initially located in the church’s main altar.

The King Consort Fernando II, married to the Portuguese Queen Maria II, promoted a profound restoration of the Pantheon between 1854 and 1855. The Royal tombs were moved from the church to the former Monastery’s refectory. Throughout the centuries the European Kingdoms were normally ruled by different Royal families that were linked by arranged marriages that in practice were no more than political, military and economical alliances. Therefore, nowadays, we can see buried in the same Pantheon the tombs of Queens and Princesses from other Royal houses such as the Habsburgs, the Bourbon, the Hohenzollern or the Savoy that came to Portugal to get married to the Portuguese Kings and Princes.

In 1932 the Pantheon was once again renovated by order of Salazar, the new chief of Government of the Military Dictatorship. The Portuguese architect, Raúl Lino (1879-1974), was responsible for designing 44 small marble coffins as well as the other splendid tombs that are located in the middle of the room. The renovated Bragança Pantheon was inaugurated in 1933.

The Dictatorship tried to rehabilitate the image of King Carlos I and to establish a political union with the supporters of the former Monarchy (abolished in 1910). The objective of the Portuguese Government was to establish a union between conservative, aristocrat and republican people against the left-wing movements (specially the communist movement). In that same year, in 1932, the last Portuguese King, Manuel II, died in the exile, in England, and Salazar agreed to fund the construction of his tomb.

At the centre of the room there are 4 tombs that stand out from the rest: the tombs of King Carlos I and of the heir to the throne, Prince Luís Filipe, (who were killed together in 1908 by 3 gunmen with the support of the Republican Party); and the tombs of King Manuel II and Queen Amelia (the second son and wife of King Carlos I respectively, who survived the attack and witnessed the assassination of the King and of the heir to the throne). The marble statue that is placed in front of both tombs is entitled “dor” which is English means ”pain”. It was sculpted by the Portuguese artist Francisco Franco (1885-1955) and symbolizes the pain felt by the last Queen of Portugal, and wife to Carlos I: Amelia of Orleans, who died a long time after her husband and her children, in 1951. In fact the last tomb to be built and placed in the Pantheon is the tomb of Queen Amelia.

Unfortunately, you cannot visit the former monk’s dormitory or the kitchen but before leaving the building go up the staircase that leads to the terrace from where you will see the church’s bell and admire the amazing view of Lisbon!

Nuno Alegria

Tour Guide in Portugal



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