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The Monastery of the Jeronimon Monks, a jewel that survived the earthquake.

Updated on May 21, 2020
Sandra Miliers profile image

Sandra was born in Toronto, came to Europe for university and ended up travelling and working the world. Portugal is one of her favourites.

An iconic building.

The Monastery of the Jeronimon Monks in Belém, Lisbon. An incredible building all by itself, even if you don't know the history behind it. A Manueline building, one of the few original ones that managed to stay basically undamaged after the earthquake and tsunami in 1755. Of course the monastery has its own story to tell, and I will do my best to tell it for the people that have no ability to go and see it.

Monastery of Jeronimon Monks in Belém, Lisbon.
Monastery of Jeronimon Monks in Belém, Lisbon.

It starts with Prince Henry.

Where the monastery is today standing, in the late 1300's, Prince Henry the navigator decided to have built a little sanctuary made for the virgen of Belém. During this time period, what we today know as the neighbourhood of Belém, was actually called Restelo, after the beach that was right here.

So, prince Henry decided to build a little sanctuary for his favourite virgen, the virgen of Belém here, hence changing the name of the neighborhood.

Prince Henry the Navigator.
Prince Henry the Navigator.

Then Vasco da Gama continued.

We know for a fact that the sanctuary was still there about a hundred years later, because Vasco da Gama had his last nights prayer in this little sanctuary, before departing on the journey that would become the discovery of the sea route to India in 1497.

However, before departing, Vasco da Gama made a suggestion. He thought it was necessary to improve the alcoves inside the chapel of the sanctuary, saying that they were in really bad state, and there was a risk that the whole ceeling would fall in some day.

However, back then, Vasco was "just any other sailor", and nobody took to much notice to him, and nothing ended up being done to the alcoves of the monastery.

Finding the sea route to India.

But then Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India, and everything changed. This man hand found the sea route to where everybody wanted to go, the famous spice place, India. Now all of a sudden, he was GOD, and everything he wanted or said, was accomplished.

The government decided, as he had complained about the little sanctuary, that it was going to be demolished, and be replaced by a new, bigger monastery.

Origin of the tarts.

The construction of what was going to be the monastery of the jeronimon monks started 1502, and it took them 99 years to finish. In 1601, the monks moved in.

At the beginning, it was only a monk monastery, but it is said that a while there were nuns here as well, and it supposedly were the nuns that taught the monks how to make the famous custard tarts, the tarts that are today known over almost all the world. Later, it became an all monk monastery again.

Miracle!

In 1755, the great disaster struck Lisbon, firstly the earthquake, and then a tsunami. Although closer to the ocean than the actual city of Lisbon, Belém and its buildings were not to badly damaged, the monastery escaped with only a "few scratches", which were repaired in short time.

Church of course, saw this as a miracle, and now started campaigning for people to devote themselves to christ, and swung a massive popularity, something not to popular with the portuguese crown.

End of the reign.

The monks stayed at the monastery until 1834. During this time period, the portuguese government was loosing many of their colonies and needed money for warfare. There was a politician that got ideas (can you believe it?) and decided that as the religious orders were standing on portuguese soil, they therefor belonged to the portuguese crown. He expelled many religious orders from their monasteries and cloisters, closed the buildings and put them up for sale to make money for the government.

Things never go as you plan.

"This is going to sell like ice cream at a kinder garten", said the politician to himself, thinking that a huge building like this with all the architectural elaboration, would sell in no time.

But no, the elaboration actually became the problem. People looked at it and said to themselves " that looks really expensive to maintain, I don't know if I want to commit myself to this for the rest of my life" and at the end the building was never sold.

The elaboration of the building made people not want to buy.
The elaboration of the building made people not want to buy.

House for the homeless.

At the end Casa Pia, ended up taking care of this building. Casa Pia was an organisation, founded by a rich family called just Pia, that took care of homless, orphans and terminally ill people. Eventually this building had turned itself into a homeless shelter.

One can imagine when someone from the overseas territories came to Portugal, landed in Belem by the tower, and then when walking 10 mins coming to the old monastery asking "what is that? Ah, that's where we keep the homeless people."

Tourism monuments.

Today more than anything, the monastery is a tourist monument although the church part is still functional for weedings, funerals and baptisms.

The church part of the monastery is free of entrance, and it is astonishing by itself (also to mention it houses the tomb of Vasco da Gama), but the old monastery part is even more bigger and beautiful, however with a 10€ entrance fee.

Today, the monument also houses the maritime and part of the archeological museums.

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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      10 days ago from UK

      We enjoyed a walking tour last time we were in Lisbon. Our guides were excellent and gave us a lot of information about the earthquake. We have seen Belem from a distance, whilst taking the train to Cascais. Having read your excellent article, I would like to visit one day.

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