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 Begun in 1502, and more or less completed when its funding was withdrawn by João III in 1551, the monastery is the most ambitious and successful achievement of Manueline architecture and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.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.