It was from Belém (pronounced Ber-layng) in 1497 that Vasco da Gama set sail for India, and here too that he was welcomed home by Dom Manuel, “The Fortunate” (O Venturoso). Da Gama brought back with him a small cargo of pepper, but it was enough to pay for his voyage several times over. The monastery subsequently built here – the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos – stands as a testament to his triumphant discovery of a sea route to the Orient, which amounted to the declaration of a “Golden Age”. Built to honour the vow Dom Manuel made to the Virgin in return for a successful voyage, it stands on the site of the hermitage founded by Henry the Navigator, where Vasco da Gama and his companions had spent their last night ashore in prayer. The monastery was partly funded by a levy on the fruits of da Gama’s discovery. The Rio Tejo at Belém has receded with the centuries, for when the monastery was built it stood almost on the beach, within the sight of moored caravels and of the Torre de Belém, guarding the entrance to the port. This, too, survived the earthquake and is the other showpiece Manueline building in Lisbon.
Both monastery and tower lie in what is now a pleasant waterfront suburb, 6km west of the city centre. It is also home to a small group of museums, most of them set up by Salazar during the 1904 Expo, and to the historic café, Antiga Confeitaria de Belém.Read More
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Even before the Great Earthquake of 1755 the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was Lisbon’s finest monument. Begun in 1502, and more or less completed when its funding was withdrawn by João III in 1551, the monastery is the most ambitious and successful achievement of Manueline architecture and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is largely the achievement of two outstanding figures: Diogo de Boitaca, perhaps the originator of the Manueline style with his Igreja de Jesus at Setúbal, and João de Castilho, a Spaniard who took over the construction from around 1517.
It was Castilho who designed the main entrance to the church, a complex, shrine-like hierarchy of figures centred on Henry the Navigator (on a pedestal above the arch). In its intricate and almost flat ornamentation, it shows the influence of the contemporary Spanish style, Plateresque (literally, the art of the silversmith). Yet it also has distinctive Manueline features – the use of rounded forms, the naturalistic motifs in the bands around the windows – and these seem to create both its harmony and individuality. Just inside the entrance lie the stone tombs of Vasco da Gama (1468–1523) and the great poet and recorder of the discoveries, Luís de Camões (1525–70).
The breathtaking sense of space inside the church places it among the great triumphs of European Gothic architecture. Here, though, Manueline developments add two fresh dimensions. There are carefully restrained tensions between the grand spatial design and the areas of intensely detailed ornamentation – the six central columns resemble palm trunks, growing both into and from the branches of the delicate rib-vaulting.
Another peculiarity of Manueline buildings is the way in which they can adapt any number of different styles. Here, the basic structure is thoroughly Gothic, though Castilho’s ornamentation on the columns is much more Renaissance in spirit. So too is the semicircular apse, added in 1572, beyond which is the entrance to the remarkable double cloister. Vaulted throughout, this is one of the most original and beautiful pieces of architecture in the country, embellished by Manueline motifs drawn from ropes, anchors and the sea, reflecting the achievements and preoccupations of an age.
The Berardo Collection
The Berardo Collection
Housed in the Centro Cultural de Belém is the Berardo Collection, a unique collection of modern art amassed by wealthy Madeiran Joe Berardo. Some of the most celebrated artists of the current and last century are displayed on the top floor, (but the collection is so large that not all of it can be shown at once), with two further floors given over to temporary exhibits. The best parts of the permanent collection (some of which should be on display) include Eric Fischl’s giant panels of sunbathers; Andy Warhol’s distinctive Judy Garland; and Chris Ofili’s Adoration of Captain Shit, made with genuine dung. Portugal’s Paula Rego is well represented – The Past and Present and The Barn are particularly strong. Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Mark Rothko usually feature, along with various video artists – don’t miss Jakab Napras’ extraordinary video collage, Babylon Planet, showing an amoeba-like world where blood is mankind and the heart is a vortex of spinning money.