By Ryan Yetter
The Jeronimos Monastery is the pride of Lisbon’s Belem quarter and a national landmark. As such an intricate building the more you look the more you see with ornate engravings and ornamentation depicting typical biblical iconography that would be commonplace in a religious campus of its era, yet there are also just as many of mythical sea monsters or legendary figures from the history of Portugal.
This building is a testament to the independent style of Portuguese design and style. The astonishing thing is that this building was constructed during the High Renaissance. If someone today were asked the first thing to come to mind when thinking of the Renaissance, chances are it would be the works of the Renaissance men of Italy such as Ghiberti, Leonardo De Vinci or Michalangelo. Yet this work, at least on the surface shares almost no similarities with the common conceptions of the era.
During the Renaissance, many unique cultures produced some of the most beautiful architecture in the world from the Germans, Dutch, French and many more in Northern and Western Europe. Hop on a ship and follow across the Mediterranean, to Portugal where we will be focused and learning from for now and learn about the diverse influences of the time and how a different corner of the world adapted styles to their own personal tastes.
The unique structure of the Jeronimos Monastery causes many historians to debate as to what style the building takes shape as. The consensus from an art historian’s point of view is to call the style Manueline after its patron. It is described as a sort of hybrid between the High Gothic and Northern Renaissance influence with additional elements from such places as Spain, and the Voyages of Vasco de Gama, including much maritime imagery. Another inspiration for the work was undoubtedly the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent counter-reform brought about by the Catholics. I will show one example of each and explain the significance.
The famous double arcade is the most prominent feature of the cloister garden at the heart of the monastery. At first glance, it may seem like its contemporaries in Italy yet upon closer inspection each arch is carved with maritime elements such as mythical sea creatures, rope, and sails. This is reminiscent of local style and highlights the proud history of Portugal.
The High Altar is the focal point of the chapel and houses the remains of the patron of the project Manuel the First. The rounded collonade complete with stunning paintings looks like it could have been taken right from the streets of Florence. The construction of the Altar was altered from its original design not long after the death of King Manuel so that his remains could be situated inside. By this time Italian ideas had circulated more broadly and were considered stylish for the time.
The Main Portal located on the south side of the Monastery is reminiscent of many gothic traditions. Most noticeable perhaps is the overall shape of the portal reflects elements of gothic style such as the soaring spires. The element that is of particular interest are the grotesques and sculptures that adorn the gateway. They depict many scenes from both the bible and the life of Saint Jerome the patron of the order who inhabited it.
The West portion of the Monastery is divided along a central Axis north to south and divided into thirds the same way. The East-West axis is divided into quarters with the northernmost two being defined by sight lines between the Library and Marine Museum, the third down is skipped before the final axis through the kings room.The Cloister is not directly aligned north to south, but they are aligned with each other at an approximate 15 degree shift, the cloister is a perfect square garden surrounded by and arcade of aligned arches The Chapel is a misaligned Latin Cross with an East-West central Axis.
In this day and age, many are quick to shoehorn things into this or that category. Is it renaissance or gothic? Or perhaps the question is more about whether or not a building is appealing or accomplishes its goal. These ideas of polarization more generally have a potentially detrimental effect on analysis as a whole. Something does not need to be one thing or another. Talking about something as if it is a combination of two conflicting styles like with the Jeronimos Monastery may distract someone from the whole point of architecture. While the practice has the potential to elevate societal standards your average layman will make a judgment of a building within the first few seconds of laying eyes on it. More often than not the purpose of a building is to be pleasing to the eyes and accomplish a given task.
I am reminded of the Poem by Walt Whitman, When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, in which the speaker leaves a lecture on how to quantify the stars to walk outside and simply take in their beauty. When we apply too many scopes and angles to look through, you may end up clouding your vision rather than clearing it. When it comes down to the Jeronimos Monastery there are many different factors that accompany what we have already covered. The sheer amount of time that it took to construct something of this magnitude allowed for many opportunities for outside influences to slip in. If you look at the south portal, the higher up it goes, the more the style transitions from Medieval to Renaissance. This is just one example again as to why it is somewhat inaccurate to place so many case studies into broadly defined categories based on nothing but time period and region.
The idea of the Global Renaissance goes beyond seeing which cultures used columns as opposed to ribbed vaults. It was a period in which our understanding of space and structure evolved to allow us to reinvent what we found to be a beautiful or successful building, in whichever cultural context you wish to look at.