10 Interesting facts about the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon

Few people come to Lisbon without making time to explore the Parish of Belem on the south western coast of the city.

Belem is home to many an attraction. Here you’ll find the famous Tower of Belem, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the renowned Museu Coleção Berardo and even the Belem Observatory.

From all of these attractions one can’t help but spot the grand structure that is the Jerónimos Monastery. Easily one of the most beautiful works of architecture in all of Portugal, the Jerónimos Monastery has a longstanding history in terms of the country’s political development.

Jerónimos Monastery – by Kent Wang – Wikimedia Commons

1. Building of the Jerónimos Monastery was Ordered in 1496

By 1496, Portugal was deep within its Age of Discovery. And Vasco da Gama had just returned from a successful voyage to India.

It was then that King Manuel I requested permission from the pope to build a grand monastery on the Belem coast as a gesture of thanks to the Virgin Mary who he believed had guided the voyagers safely.

Permission was granted, and construction of the Jerónimos Monastery began shortly thereafter.

Jerónimos Monastery – by yuka HAYASHI – Wikimedia Commons

2. Jerónimos Monastery is not its Real Name

The monastery replaced an existing church on the same site; one that was dedicated to Santa Maria de Belem.

The actual name of this new monument is Mosteiro da Santa Maria de Belem, but it bares the nickname of “O Jerónimos”, which explains where Jerónimos Monastery came from.

3. Monks Were Ordered to Pray

The construction of this monastery was one of the biggest events in religious history for the people of Portugal at this time. Many religious groups sought to occupy the space, but it was the Order of St. Jerome (or the Hieronymites) that King Manual I eventually invited in.

In return for the privilege, the monks were expected to pray daily for Prince Henry the Navigator, as well as for the existing king and whomever his successors would be after him.

The monks also offered spiritual counsel to sailers leaving from and returning to Belem.

Jerónimos Monastery – by OsvaldoGago – Wikimedia Commons

4. Those Same Monks Invented the Pastel de Nata

Another thing you won’t miss in Belem is, what many believe to be, the best pastel de natas in all of Lisbon. It makes sense then, that this now famous dessert was actually invited right here in the Jerónimos Monastery many years ago.

The first record of sales of the dessert date back to the 1830s, but it is believed that the monks created the recipe about 100 years before that.

At the time, the nuns and monks in the monastery would use vast amounts of egg whites to starch their clothing. The remaining yolks left room to get creative, and would eventually become the key ingredient to these tasty treats.

Pastel de Nata – by Kent Wang – Wikimedia Commons

5. The Jerónimos Monastery was Designed in Manueline Style

The Jerónimos Monastery is widely regarded as one of the best examples of Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline architecture on the planet.

The entire facade features rich visuals carved into limestone. It’s a symphony of complicated sculptural themes that incorporate nautical objects that were involved in the Age of Discoveries.

Jerónimos Monastery – by Kent Wang – Wikimedia Commons

6. The Great Earthquake of 1755 Left Little Damage

The Jerónimos Monastery was one of few buildings in Lisbon that withstood the immense shake of the Great Earthquake of 1755.

While the earthquake brought many buildings down, the monastery got away with light ruins to the balustrade and part of the high choir. These were repaired easily and soon after the event.

7. You’ll Find Vasco da Gama’s Tomb in Jerónimos Monastery

Being the monument of the Age of Discoveries, it’s only apt that Vasco da Gama would find his final resting place in the tombs of the Jerónimos Monastery.

The building’s creator, King Manual I, and his family also lay to rest in the lower level of the monastery.

Alongside them, some of Portugal’s most famous writers were also granted permanent residency here. These include Fernando Pessoa and Luís de Camões.

Jerónimos Monastery – by yuka HAYASHI – Wikimedia Commons

8. The Jerónimos Monastery is One of the Seven Wonders of Portugal

It delighted me to learn that there is actually an official list of Seven Wonders of Portugal.

These are historic sites that retain immense significance to the culture and bygone years of the country. Interestingly, two of the seven wonders call Lisbon home, and both of them are found in Belem.

The Jerónimos Monastery being one of them, and the Tower of Belem a short walk away being the other. Just one visit to Belem lets you tick off two of the seven wonders in one go.

Jerónimos Monastery – by yuka HAYASHI – Wikimedia Commons

9. Funds for Building Jerónimos Monastery Came From Various Sea Explorations

It is often quite astounding to consider the time out of which this monument evolved. Construction of the monastery wouldn’t have come cheap, and Portugal was not necessarily a wealthy land as of yet at this time.

The monastery took over 100 years to build. Over this period of time, treasures from voyages to Asia, Africa, and South America were hawked for funds to continue the construction process.

One could argue then as to whether Portugal paid for the Jerónimos Monastery, or if it was actually the lands that they took from that did…

Jerónimos Monastery – by Ji Soo Song – Wikimedia Commons

10. The Jerónimos Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Because of the monastery’s historic and cultural importance to the country of Portugal, it was dubbed an official UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

It is now one of the most visited landmarks in Lisbon. Entry into the monastery is €10, but there are discounts for children and students year round.

Any of the free guided walking tours through Belem will also take you right past the building with ample opportunity for you to explore the exterior to great length.

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