Chronicle in Stone
Commissioned by King Manuel I in celebration of Vasco da Gama’s 1498 discovery of a lucrative sea route to India, Lisbon’s Jerónimos Monastery is the crowning achievement of Manueline architecture. Built on the site of the Santa Maria hermitage, founded by Prince Henry the Navigator in 1460, the monastery overlooks the Tagus River, where it empties into the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic. The monastery’s buildings are replete with seafaring and oriental motifs—seahorses, elephants, ropes, shells, and armillary spheres—all exquisitely wrought in stone and affirming of Portugal’s place as foremost maritime power of the sixteenth century. Ground for the monastery complex was broken in 1502; the whole of its magnificent cloister and Church of Santa Maria de Belém were completed by the mid-sixteenth century. In 1567, a large, spring-fed lake was installed in the cloister courtyard.
Two superimposed suites of vaulted galleries, each 55 meters in length, compose the cloister, which is built on a square plan with chamfered corners. The cloister is crowned by a parapet decorated with medallions, portraits of explorers and Portuguese royalty, and other ornaments in bas-relief. A bearded statue of Prince Henry stands at the south portal of the church. Dom Manuel and his wife Doña Maria preside over the west portal in the company of the four evangelists. Within the sanctuary are the tombs of Portuguese kings and queens—four of which are of marble and jasper, supported by carved pairs of stone elephants—along with those of two of the country’s greatest heroes, Vasco da Gama and Luis de Camões, who extolled da Gama’s discoveries nearly a century later in his epic poem Os Lusíadas (The Luciad). Since its construction five centuries ago, time had taken its toll on the monastery, which was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1755. This damage was compounded by the corrosive effects of routine weathering and airborne pollutants, as well as disfiguring biological growth.