The dramatic Convento de Cristo is about a fifteen-minute walk uphill from the town centre. Founded in 1162 by Gualdim Pais, first and grandest Master of the Knights Templar, it was the headquarters of the Order and, as such, both a religious and a military 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.
The Charola of the Knights Templars
One of the main objectives of the Knights Templars was to expel the Moors from Spain and Portugal, a reconquest seen always as a crusade. Spiritual strength was an integral part of the military effort and the sacred heart of the whole complex remains the Charola, the twelfth-century temple from which the knights drew their moral conviction. At the centre of the almost circular sixteen-sided chapel stands the high altar, surrounded by a two-storeyed octagon. Deep alcoves decorated with sixteenth-century paintings are cut into the outside walls. The Templars are said to have attended Mass on horseback. Like almost every circular church, it is ultimately based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, for whose protection the Order of the Knights Templar was originally founded.
Claustro do Cemitério, Claustro da Lavagem and Salo do Capítulo
By 1249 the Reconquest in Portugal was completed and the Templars reaped enormous rewards for their service, controlling a network of castles throughout the Iberian peninsula. The knights presented a powerful challenge to the authority of European monarchs and Philippe-le-Bel, King of France, took the lead by confiscating all Templar property in his country. There followed a formal papal suppression of the order in 1314 and many knights sought refuge in Portugal, where Dom Dinis coolly reconstituted them in 1320 under a different title: the Order of Christ.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Order of Christ played a leading role in extending Portugal’s overseas empire. Prince Henry the Navigator was Grand Master from 1417 to 1460 and the remains of his palace in the Convento de Cristo can be seen immediately to the right upon entering the castle walls. Henry ordered two new azulejo-lined cloisters, the Claustro do Cemitério and the Claustro da Lavagem, the latter used for domestic tasks like the washing of monks’ robes.
Dom Manuel succeeded to the Grand Mastership in 1492, three years before he became king (1495–1521), and he expanded the convent by adding a rectangular nave to the west side of the Charola. This new structure was divided into two storeys: the lower serving as a chapterhouse, the upper as a choir. The main doorway, which leads directly into the nave, was built by João de Castilho in 1515, two years before Dom Manuel appointed him Master of Works at Belém. Characteristically unconcerned with structural matters, the architect adorned the doorway with profuse appliqué decoration.
The crowning highlight of Tomar, though, is the sculptural ornamentation on the main facade of the Salo do Capítulo (chapterhouse). The richness and self-confidence of Manueline art always suggests the Age of Discovery, but here the connection is crystal clear. A wide range of maritime motifs is jumbled up in two tumultuous window frames, as eternal memorials to the sailors who established the Portuguese Empire. Everything is here: anchors, buoys, sails, coral, seaweed and especially ropes, knotted over and over again into an escapologist’s nightmare. The windows can only be fully appreciated from the roof of the Claustro de Santa Bárbara, adjacent to the Great Cloisters.
Conventual buildings and Claustro Príncipal
João III (1521–57) transformed the convent from the general political headquarters of the Order into a monastic community and he endowed it with monks’ cells, dormitories, kitchens, refectory, storerooms and no fewer than four new cloisters (making a grand total of seven). João is known to have sent architects and sculptors to study in Italy and his reign finally marked the much-delayed advent of the Renaissance in Portugal. The two-tiered Claustro Príncipal (Great Cloisters), abutting the chapterhouse, is one of the purest examples of this new style. Begun in 1557, they present a textbook illustration of the principles of Renaissance Neoclassicism. Greek columns, gentle arches and simple rectangular bays produce a wonderfully restrained rhythm.