Built in the second half of the 12th century, Coimbra’s magnificent cathedral known as Sé Velha is one of the finest Romanesque churches in Europe.
Famous for its solid two-tier arched portal and contrastingly delicate Gothic cloister, its architects were French – Master Builders Robert and Bernard – who laid the building’s foundation stone during the reign of Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king.
Sé is the general Portuguese word for cathedral and Coimbra has two – Sé Nova and Sé Velha – the latter being a very sturdy, crenellated and battlemented building in the style of Santiago de Compostela which has thankfully managed to withstand many of the destructive rigours of time.
This ancient and immensely historical church witnessed the coronations of several Portuguese kings over the centuries, most notably that of King Sancho I (the second king of Portugal) in 1185, as well as the macabre enthronement of Inês de Castro’s exhumed body in 1361, as chronicled by many historians.
Constructed when Coimbra was the country’s capital (before the honour was transferred to Lisbon in 1255), Sé Velha served as the city’s main cathedral until the episcopal see was moved to Sé Nova in 1772.
It was built as much for defence as it was for religious purposes, and its metre-thick walls and numerous arrow slits would still make it a formidable fortress were it to come under attack today.
Standing proud in the heart of Coimbra’s Old Town, in a prime location that has changed very little in over 800 years, it is best approached through the twisting maze of narrow streets that wind their way down from the city’s ancient university, which itself dates right back to 1290.
The clean lines of the cathedral’s façade are broken by a large doorway with a striking window and balcony above. On the north side is a remarkable Renaissance door – the Porta Especiosa – which has three levels, a porch, balcony and niches richly decorated with balusters and statues.
Blessed with great dignity and a starkly medieval atmosphere, Sé Velha remains exquisitely beautiful, especially its somewhat austere interior which is so grand it simply takes your breath away when you see it for the first time.
Visitors are immediately welcomed by the baptismal font at the main entrance followed by a warm glow emitting from the wonderful early-16th century carved and painted retable by the renowned Flemish artists Olivier de Gand and Jean d’Ypres which features a high relief panel of The Assumption of the Virgin.
In the south aisle, a series of old steps lead up to the cathedral’s notable early-13th century Gothic cloister, an architectural masterpiece and the first of its kind to be constructed in Portugal.
Other interesting features are the giant conch shells (often used for holding holy water) brought as a gift to Sé Velha by the earliest Portuguese discoverers of Timor at the beginning of the 16th century and the tomb of Sisnando Davides, the first Christian governor of the city who was a converted Mozarab from the Iberian Peninsula. He died in Coimbra in 1091 and is buried in the chapter house.
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