Here’s yet another chapter in a series of photographs from my three week father/daughter trip to Portugal back in December 2022 – January 2023 (and yes, I know we’re in November now but we’re finally nearing the end – seriously!). In today’s post, we pay a visit to the Convent of Christ (and Castle) in Tomar.
In my last post, we took a look inside the Dominican Monastery of Batalha, the 8th UNESCO World Heritage Site we’ve been to so far on our Portugal trip. We then drove about 35 minutes east to the city of Tomar and checked into the lovely landscaped Hotel dos Templários (very highly recommended). We then headed over to the “Castelo dos Templarios”, considered one of the most important Portuguese military buildings of the 12th century. Inside, it houses the Convent of Christ – the combination of the two being yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site (our 9th!).
The castle was built by King Afonso Henriques around 1160 on a strategic location, over a hill and near river Nabão. The building was an issue of military strategy since it was necessary to establish a fort that could defend the borderlands with the Muslim regions.
The towers surrounding the exterior walls were considered a great innovation in the time, and were – in fact – introduced by the Knights Templar (a military order of the Catholic faith, and one of the wealthiest and most popular military orders in Western Christianity). The round towers in the outer walls are more resistant to attacks than square towers.
The castle was OK (I mean, if you’ve seen one castle in Europe, you’ve pretty much seen them all, no?) so let’s get to the meat of the matter – the spectacular Convento de Cristo (Convent of Christ).
The Romanesque round church is a Catholic Church from the castle that was built in the second half of the 12th century. The Convent’s centerpiece is its 12th century Templar Charola (Rotunda), Oratory of the Templars, influenced by Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre Rotunda. It was built by the first great master of the Templars, Gualdim Pais, and was based on a polygonal ground plan of 16 bays including an octagonal choir with ambulatory. I’ve been to quite a few cathedrals in Europe and I’ve never been seen an interior as impressive as this one. Nuff said.
During the 16th century, altarpiece paintings, murals, stucco work and carvings were added during the reign of King Manuel I (himself a Grand Master) to create an amazing space full of historic atmosphere. The paintings and frescos depicting mainly 16th century biblical scenes, as well as the gilt statuary under the Byzantine dome were carefully restored.
The paintings are attributed to the workshop of the court painter of Manuel I, the Portuguese Jorge Afonso, while the sculptured decoration is attributed to Flemish sculptor Olivier de Gand and the Spaniard Hernán Muñoz.
There are eight sets of cloisters and courtyards scattered throughout the Convento de Cristo, built in the 15th and 16th centuries – and plenty of rooms and winding stairs to wander in and out of.
There’s possibly no finer example of the Manueline style (Portuguese late Gothic, originating in the 16th century and incorporating maritime elements) than the Window of the Chapter House at the Convent of Christ. This window in Portuguese is known as Janela do Capítulo and, unfortunately, it was being renovated – but it would have looked something like this…
With just one full day in Tomar on my itinerary, it was now time to head back to our hotel and figure out where to eat dinner. The castle? Nice enough. The Charola inside the Convent of Christ? One of the most remarkable sites in all our three weeks in Portugal. Don’t miss it should you ever find yourself in Portugal (and you really, really should find yourself there one day).