During the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521) the Age of Discoveries was in full swing and Portugal's expanding empire began sending back inordinate amounts of wealth. As an emerging European super-power it was only fitting that this was put on show to the world with a flurry of monuments, churches and palaces built as the gold rolled in. This time was considered Portugal's heyday by some and it is also said that much of the nation's wealth was squandered on such vanity projects. However, the legacy of these times are some stunningly beautiful buildings featuring craftsmanship that has few rivals.
The architectural style of these buildings was named after the king and was reflective of the age with elaborate stonework featuring motifs inspired by both maritime and Christian themes. Manueline architecture, as it is known, is at its heart Late Gothic, but what defines it is the use of lavish, themed ornamentation. Doorways, columns and windows would be encrusted in opulently carved stonework which might be considered over the top if it were not so beautiful.
In the early days the Manueline Style was primarily the work of artist Joao de Castilho and Diogo de Boitaca, who were responsible for the incredible detail on the cloisters of the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem, along with brothers Francisco and Diogo de Arruda who designed the Torre de Belem.
The following are a list of Portugal's most important and impressive examples of Manueline architecture to be found.
Despite its rather uninspiring largely Gothic outward appearance, the Igreja de Jesus is actually one of the most important churches in Portugal in terms of architecture for this is the building that pioneered the Manueline style.
Founded in 1490 as a convent for Poor Clare nuns, the church was the seminal work of Diogo de Boitaca. Somewhat restrained in comparison to the later Manueline extravaganzas this is still a place of beauty. The main entrance portal is slightly subdued by Manueline standards but within the church some familiar themes emerge. Most notable are the twisted columns of Arrabida stone which resemble ropes and extend up into the ribbed vaulted ceiling. This is decorated with azulejo tilework, which while beautiful is a 17th century addition.
The monastery church of Santa Cruz in downtown Coimbra was founded as far back as the early 12th century making it one of the oldest in Portugal. Historically this church was massively important and within are the tombs of Portugal's earliest kings; D. Afonso Henrique and D. Sancho I.
As wealth flooded into Portugal during the 16th century the church was remodelled in the Manueline style, again by Diogo de Botica. This is far more extravagantly decorated than the church in Setubal and features the beautiful Cloister of Silence and ornate Sala do Capitulo with its ribbed ceiling. Perhaps the most obvious expression of Manueline exuberance though is the main portal (Portal da Majestade). Designed by Joao de Castilho it has some fine stonework by French sculptor Nicolau Chanterene.
The vast Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria de Alcobaça is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This medieval monastery was the first to be built in the Gothic style in Portugal, so largely predates Manueline, but there are a number of later additions which are.
Many of these are just flourishes; for instance the surround of the doorway to the sacristy which was the work of Joao de Castilho. However, a more extensive example of Castilho's Manueline work can be seen in the Cloister of Silence. Also known as the Dom Dinis cloister (after the reigning king) the lower portion dates back to the 14th century and is a particularly fine example of the Gothic style. The upper level of cloister was added in the 1530s and is distinctly Manueline with its finely crafted stonework.
The town of Sintra is like something out of a fairytale with castles and palaces hidden amongst the thick forest which clings to the hillside. To some extent it is a work of fiction as not everything is as it appears. The Moorish Castle, for example, may be on a site dating back to the 8th century but everything you see today is in fact 19th century. The same is true for many of Sintra's finest buildings which were built as part of the Romanticist movement which flourished here under King Ferdinand II.
Best known of all of Sintra's palaces is the Disney-esque Pena Palace which sits atop the Serra de Sintra. A beautiful combination of virtually every architectural style that has ever existed in Portugal this 19th century palace was built in the 1830s as a love nest for the king and his queen, Maria II. Along with Arabesque archways and Medieval turrets the palace relies heavily on Manueline style features. But this is Neo-Manueline, so instead of harping back to Portugal's maritime greatness the motifs are more eclectic.
Built along similar lines as the palace is the Câmara Municipal de Sintra - the town hall. It would be very difficult to guess this was the municipal offices with its flambouyant tower and elaborate Manueline style flourishes. It is said that the interior more than matches the outside in terms of excess, but sadly it is not open to the public.
Of all Sintra's fine buildings it is possibly the Quinta Regaleira that is the purest in its Manueline character. Set in lavish gardens featuring grottoes, wells and fountains this small palace has taken inspiration from all the great Manueline buildings built four hundred years before. There are turrets, arcades and balconies along with arched doorways and windows, all extravagantly decorated in the Manueline style. But unlike the true Manueline masterpieces this was not built by order of royalty but by Brazilian coffee tycoon António Carvalho Monteiro (or "Moneybags Monteiro") in the early 1900s.
Originally known as the Igreja da Santa Casa da Misericórdia, this church was built at the beginning of the 16th century it was the second biggest place of worship in Lisbon. It was said to almost rival the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem for its style and grandeur. This may seem a little strange when you view the Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Conceição Velha (Our Lady of the Conception) today for it is sandwiched between two 18th century Pombalesque buildings on one of the Baixa's lesser known streets. However, there is a reason for this.
Disaster struck the church in 1755 when the great earthquake destroyed much of the church. What is left is testament to the former grandeur of this church as it reflects what could be salvaged. Impressive as the Manueline Portal and windows may be, this was only the side entrance. It seems little of the interior was saved as this is almost entirely Baroque.
Set on a hill within the ancient woodland of Buçaco is what would appear to be one of Portugal's Manueline treasures. But despite appearances this incredible building is an imposter and was not built until the end of the 19th century. It is in fact mock or neo-Manueline and in case it reminds you of the Quinta Regaleira in Sintra, this is no coincidence. Both of these turn of the century pseudo-Manueline masterpieces were created, at least in part, by architect Luigi Manini.
Unlike the Quinta Regaleira, which merely looks like it was built as a royal palace, the Bussaco Palace was in fact built for royalty. It was King Luis who commissioned the extravagant palace in 1888 as a summer residence, however he didn't live to see it completed in 1907. Further misfortune followed with Luis' successor King Carlos being assassinated just after the place was completed. And the royal families bad luck continued with the next King, Manuel II, only managing to spend some days during one summer before the monarchy were overthrown and he spent the rest of his days in exile.
After the Portuguese republic was established the palace became a 5 star hotel and has remained so since. It is an incredible place and it is possibly a good thing that this place of beauty has been opened up to the rest of the world. The interior is just as sumptuous as the outside and features Manueline style doorways and ribbed ceilings, although these are actually stucco. This is not the only shortcut the builders took; the main structure is actually made from brick with the elaborate stonework merely a decorative cladding.
This former Knights Templar stronghold dates back to the 12th century. During the 15th and 16th centuries the monastery benefited from several Manueline additions including cloisters and the stunning chapterhouse window.
The Torre de Belem (Belem Tower) is an outstanding example of the exuberance of Manueline architecture. Built during the last years of Manuel I's reign it is one of only a few structures in Portugal that are purely Manueline in design with the others being adaptations of existing buildings, or incorporating later architectural styles.
Situated on the waterside at Belem, near the mouth of the Tejo, it was built as both a celebration of the Age of the Discoveries and to defend the mouth of the river. It was in fact designed by military architect Francisco de Arruda and even saw action against the French during the Battle of the Tagus in 1831. In those days the bastion contained two artillery levels with seventeen canons trained on the river.
The main defensive portion of the fort is the bastion which juts out into the river at the base of the tower. The tower itself rises over 30 metres (100 ft) and features four levels connected by a spiral staircase. These are; the Governor's Room (Sala do Governador), the King's Room (Sala dos Reis), the audience hall, the chapel and a rooftop terrace. The interior is fairly plain on the whole although the rib-vaulted ceilings add some drama. It is the exterior of this UNESCO World Heritage Site building that is the real draw. Arched windows,elaborate turrets and the familiar Manueline motifs of the armillary sphere and cross of the Order of Christ are all in evidence.
Interestingly, the tower was built from white Loiz limestone which were in fact offcuts from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
The Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória, or Batalha Monastery as it is generally known is both enormous and impressive whilst at the same time beautiful. It was built to commemorate the great military victory against the Castilians of the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 and work began the following year. It took almost 100 years to build the vast Gothic abbey which formed the basis of what we see today.
Over the following centuries Batalha became one of Portugal's most important national monuments and money was lavished upon it by successive kings. But it was in the 16th century, when Portugal was at its richest that transformed beyond its initial Gothic form into what is a dazzling example of Manueline style.
Some of the finest Manueline work can be seen in Diogo de Boitaca's modifications to the Claustro Real (Royal Cloister) with his beautifully carved arcades and stone screens featuring ornate spirals and motifs of flowers and shells. However, it is the Capelas Imperfeitas (Unfinished Chapels) that are perhaps the most stunning. The 15 metre high entrance is an explosion of Manueline latticework whilst beyond this, there is barely a square inch of the octagonal interior that has not been adorned in some way. Angels, sea shells, ropes, chains, leaves arches and every other Manueline style flourish imaginable have been carved into the stone of these stately chapels.
The Jeronimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos) in Belem is the finest monument in Lisbon, if not Portugal. It is breathtaking in terms of both beauty and sheer scale and is well worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
The monastery is a celebration of Portugal's golden age of Discoveries, and more specifically of Vasco da Gama's return from his voyage to India. The profligate Dom Manuel I had promised the nation he would build a monument should da Gama return from his expedition, which he did in 1498. True to his word the king ordered work to begin under the care of Manueline master Diogo de Boitaca. Fortunately the wealth from the spice trade generated by da Gama's trip more than covered the costs of the monastery as the king more or less signed a blank cheque for the project.
In 1517 building the church was taken over by João de Castilho and it is his work which truly makes the monastery exceptional. The fantastically detailed 32 metre (100 ft) high entrance portal is his work and is just a foretaste of the splendour within. The church's interior is a masterpiece with its intricately carved pillars resembling giant palm trees fanning out into the rib-vaulted ceiling high above.
Beyond the main church is the remarkable two-storey cloister - a riot of Manueline decor carved into the golden limestone. There is barely a square inch of stone that does not have a coat of arms, cross, armillary sphere, flower or fantastic beast carved into it. The columns that divide the arches are works of art in their own right featuring a range of spiral designs and the ceiling features the beautiful ribbed vaulting seen elsewhere in the monastery.