Located in the heart of the old university city of Coimbra, the venerable church of Santa Cruz (which means Holy Cross) is one of Portugal’s most important monuments.
Formerly part of the Augustinian monastery originally founded in the first half of the 12th century, the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz (as it is officially known) is significant not only because of its immense historical interest but also on account of the artistic merit of its tiles and carvings.
Its cornerstone was laid in 1131 under the patronage of Afonso Henriques (Portugal’s first king) who is buried inside the church alongside his son, King Afonso I, who acceded the throne when his father died on the 6th of December 1185.
Afonso Henriques regularly attended services at the church wearing monastic robes, although he is depicted in armour on his tomb amongst a great profusion of sacred emblems and ornaments in the Manueline style.
Graced with an exuberant Manueline façade, the church is relatively narrow with patterned azulejo glazed tiles on the walls and its nave is overlooked by a magnificent single-manual organ (the world’s largest) that dates back to 1724.
In the Middle Ages, Coimbra was the base of a major sculptural school that included the French artists Nicolas Chanterène (look out for his carvings on the church’s Gate of Majesty designed by Diogo de Castilho in 1523), Jean de Rouen and the two Manueline masters João de Castilho and Diogo Boitac, all of whom had an influential hand in refining the church’s architectural splendour in the 16th century.
Its splendid interior boasts some fine primitives by a number of renowned Portuguese painters, including Cristóvão de Figueiredo, Gregório Lopes and Vasco Fernandes (better known as Grão Vasco).
Another major highlight is the 16th-century pulpit, one of the supreme achievements of the Renaissance in Portugal, which was carved from a single block of stone in the 16th century.
What to see in Coimbra
Dating from 1530, and one of the oldest religious features of their kind in Portugal, the choir stalls are notable for their splendid workmanship with carvings portraying scenes from The Lusiads by Luís de Camões and the voyages of Vasco da Gama in gold wood high relief.
Set around a whispering fountain, the church’s two-tiered Gothic-Manueline Silent Cloister (Claustro do Silêncio) has columns twisted like ropes and floors inlaid with some preserved 13th-century tombs.
In one quiet corner of the cloister st the oval-shaped Capela de São Teótonio which houses the tomb of Saint Theotonius, the first prior of the monastery in the 12th century.
Many historians claim that King Pedro I famously enthroned and crowned the corpse of his lover, Inês de Castro, at the altar of the church of Santa Cruz before forcing his courtiers to honour the dead queen by kissing her decomposing hand.
There’s much more to see in very close proximity to the church of Santa Cruz (indicated on the Google map below), such as the Igreja do Carmo (notable for its 16th-century retable), the Igreja da Graça (founded by King João III in 1543), Coimbra’s ancient university (one of the oldest in the world) and the city’s historic Sé Velha Cathedral.
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