The dramatic Convento de Cristo is one of Portugal’s most important historical buildings – serving, unusually, as both military nerve-centre and religious foundation. It was built by Gualdim Pais, a knight who had served under Afonso Henriques in battles against the Moors in Portugal. In 1157 he was appointed Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar, and moved their base from Soure in central Portugal, south to strategically important land overlooking the Rio Nabão at what became Tomar. When the powerful Templar order was later suppressed – it was seen as a challenge both to European rulers and the Papacy – it was simply re-established in Portugal in 1319 as the Order of Christ, with the castle at Tomar again its headquarters. The Order was later at the centre of Portugal’s emerging maritime empire, and under Prince Henry the Navigator – an illustrious Grand Master indeed – the castle also became both lavish palace and monastic centre.

It’s an enormous complex, and though you could whip around the main highlights in an hour, a longer tour could easily take two or three hours. You’re given a comprehensive English-language guide and floorplan on entry, and there’s a café inside with terrace seating.

Charola, nave and portal

The first structure to be built by Gualdim Pais within the new walls was also the castle’s defining structure, the Charola, a round temple modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s an outstanding piece of architecture, sixteen-sided on the outside, octagonal on the inside, and must have made a deeply powerful and symbolic impression on the Order’s medieval knights – many of whom, like Gualdim Pais himself, had travelled to the Holy Land. Under Dom Manuel I – Grand Master of the Order of Christ as well as king – the chapel was superbly decorated with the polychromatic statues and rich paintings you see today. Prince Henry had earlier added a nave to the round temple, greatly expanding the size of the church; Manuel rebuilt this in the flamboyant style that became synonymous with his name, in particular commissioning master architect João de Castilho to add a superb decorative portal that links the Charola to the Manueline church.

The cloisters

There are no fewer than eight cloisters in the Convento do Cristo, most added during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as the complex underwent massive expansion, in line with its increasing influence. Not only did Prince Henry build himself palatial quarters within the castle, he also expanded the monastic quarters, adding two lovely tiled cloisters, the Claustro do Cemitério and the Claustro da Lavagem, the latter used for domestic tasks like the washing of monks’ robes. The main cloister received its first remodelling under Dom Manuel I and his court architect João de Castilho, but it was Manuel’s successor, João III (1521–57), who transformed this central feature of what was by now a full working monastery. Work on the Claustro Príncipal began in 1557 and, under first the Spanish architect Diogo de Torralva and then the Italian Filippo Terzi, by 1591 the Convento do Cristo had a magnificent two-storey arcaded Renaissance cloister that’s the equal of anything in the country.

Janela do Capítulo

If there’s one place in the entire complex that reveals the wealth and care lavished on the buildings – and thus the high regard in which the Convento do Cristo was held for centuries – it’s the Janela do Capítulo (Chapter House Window). Added to the west facade of the nave between 1510 and 1513, it was given the full Manueline treatment by sculptor Diogo de Arruda, who rolled out every maritime and imperial motif he could muster in one masterful decorative sweep around what is – let’s not forget – a mere window (albeit a very large window into a very important church). There are twisted ropes, knots and swirls, coral and vegetation, and crosses and globes in glorious profusion. Access to see the window and the west facade is from the Claustro de Santa Bárbara, next to the Claustro Príncipal.