Romanesque Architecture - Portugal

Dating from the early 12th century, many rare examples of Romanesque architecture still exist in Portugal, most notably in the northern regions of the country.

This somewhat simple, ascetic, sturdy and often dramatically stark style of construction marked a return to the barrel vaults and rounded arches of the Romans following the expulsion of the Moors, who were present in Portugal for more than four hundred years.

Indeed, the nation of Portugal was founded when Romanesque architecture was at its prime and the majority of the Moors’ mosques were destroyed and replaced by a church or a more lavish cathedral during the Reconquest, very often on exactly the same site as the mosque and most commonly of a fortified appearance due to the continued threat of a Moorish or Castilian invasion.

The figure who led this nationwide sweep (and in doing so became the first king of Portugal) was Afonso Henriques, whose father Henry had arrived from Burgundy in the late 11th century.

Thus, it was these Burgundian roots that proved instrumental in the development of Romanesque architecture up and down the country, with the subsequent transition to Gothic beginning in the late 12th century when Cistercian monks summoned from France by Afonso I built a monastery at Alcobaça.

Romanesque architecture in Portugal is largely based on granite (which abounds in the north) and its hardness renders detailed carving mostly impossible. In places such as central Portugal where the softer limestone is more prevalent, such as Coimbra, Tomar and Lisbon, carved decorations are a more common Romanesque feature.

An impressive number of churches originally built in the Romanesque style can still be visited in Portugal, including Lisbon’s ancient cathedral known as the Sé (from the Latin sedes meaning Bishop’s ‘seat’). Lisbon Cathedral (indicated on the Google map below)  is the oldest church in the Portuguese capital and is particularly notable for its original Romanesque nave, triforium and aisles which somehow survived a series of devastating earthquakes over the centuries, while the cloister contains a very well preserved Romanesque wrought-iron grille.

Romanesque architecture in Portugal

Another of the great Romanesque cathedrals stands proud in the centre of Évora, a very historic city in the heart of the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. With its striking tower and imposing interior, the building dates mainly from the 13th century and ranks amongst the largest and most impressive churches in the Iberian Peninsula.

Coimbra’s oldest cathedral, Sé Velha (the city has two, the other being Sé Nova), was built in the second half of the 12th century when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal (Lisbon became the capital in 1255). One of the finest Romanesque churches in Europe, it has witnessed the coronations of several Portuguese kings over the centuries, as well as enthronement of Inês de Castro’s exhumed body in 1361.

Built on the site of a Suevic castle, the magnificent Sé Cathedral in Porto is another one of the most important Romanesque monuments in Portugal and famous for witnessing the marriage of King João I (Henry the Navigator’s father) to his English bride, Philippa of Lancaster in 1387.

A few smaller but very exquisite Romanesque churches also exist, chief amongst them the Igreja de Cedofeita near Porto (whose façade still maintains its Romanesque elements and dark granite stone) and the Igreja de São Salvador de Bravães on the River Lima which is principally identifiable for its long nave and austere Romanesque decoration.

Other outstanding examples of Romanesque architecture in Portugal include the five-sided domus municipalis in Bragança in the Trás-os-Montes region (a very rare example of Romanesque civic architecture) and the polygonal Charola, a church built by the Knights Templar in the city of Tomar in central Portugal.

Romanesque art is another highly prized rarity in Portugal, with a scattering of examples still in existence, most notably on the tomb of Egas Moniz o Aio (1080-1146) in the church of the Benedictine monastery at Paço de Sousa near Porto in northern Portugal.

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