With the new-found wealth and confidence engendered by the “Discoveries” came a distinctly Portuguese version of Late Gothic architecture. Named after King Manuel I (1495–1521), the Manueline style is characterized by a rich and often fantastical use of ornamentation. Doors, windows and arcades are encrusted with elaborately carved stonework, in which the imagery of the sea is freely combined with both symbols of Christianity and of the newly discovered lands.
The style first appeared at the Igreja de Jesus (1494–98), in Setúbal. This relatively restrained building is the work of Diogo Boitac, who later supervised the initial construction of the great Jéronimos monastery at Belém a few kilometres downstream from Lisbon. Commissioned by the king, this is a far more exuberant structure with an elaborately carved south portal opening onto a nave where the vaulting ribs seem to sprout out of the thin, trunk-like columns like leaves from a palm tree. Belém was the point from which many of the Portuguese navigators set forth, and the new building was largely subsidized by the new, lucrative spice trade.
The Jéronimos monastery is the most unified expression of the new style, but Manuel I also commissioned lavish extensions to existing buildings, such as the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, which is arguably the most brilliant and original expression of Manueline decoration. The armillary sphere – a navigational instrument – became the personal emblem of King Manuel, and frequently appears in Manueline decoration. It can be seen at the great abbey at Batalha, whose Capelas Imperfeitas (Unfinished Chapels) are also smothered in ornamentation (including snails and artichokes) that seems to defy the material from which it’s carved. Not all Manueline architecture was ecclesiastical: there were also palaces, like that of the Dukes of Bragança at Vila Viçosa, and castles, like the one at Évora Monte where the whole of the exterior is bound by a single stone rope. Most famous of all secular constructions is Lisbon’s Torre de Belém, a fortress built on an island in the River Tejo which incorporates Moorish-style balconies, battlements in the form of shields, and even a carving of a rhinoceros.
Manueline architecture did not continue much beyond the fourth decade of the sixteenth century. Indeed, so meteoric was the rise and fall of Manueline art within the reign of Dom Manuel that, to some extent, it must have reflected his personal tastes. In the reign of Manuel’s successor, King João III, a more austere religious atmosphere prevailed in which the decorative excesses of the Manueline style were replaced by the ordered sobriety of Italian classicism.