São Vicente de Fora – A new perspective

As you might know from my previous articles, I am not a big fan of religious exhibitions. And so my expectations weren’t too high when I went to the Monastery São Vicente de Fora in Graca.

But as so many times, I was once again shown that expectations can differ so much from reality!

First of all, the monastery is part of the patriarchy of Lisbon. Since speaking with Paulo at the ticket counter, I now actually know what a patriarch is. He has the same responsibilities as a bishop, such as blessing bread for the Communion, but receives greater honors. Therefore patriarchs are somewhere between bishops and the Pope. That Lisbon is, next to Venice, the only city in Europe with a patriarchy seems to mean a great deal then.

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Although I do not care much about the church and religion, I found this very interesting. The catholic church is a huge organisation and religion is still very important in Portugal. Knowing more about its presence here, I reckon, can not hurt under these circumstances. After all, I do my quest also to learn more about the Portuguese people and culture.

The exhibition dealing with the history of the patriarchy and the different men who had the honors to hold the title, however, was not very interesting to me. Locals and religious people could probably relate more to this section. Further, general information was given both in Portuguese and in English, while text about the patriarchs was only in Portuguese. It’s a habit I have seen in other museums before but still can’t understand, as it makes the experience quite messy.

Anyway, what impressed me was the monastery itself! It’s an incredible building, entirely in white with countless azulejo panellings and long hallways. There were several towers and spikes on the roof, which, in combination with a blue sky, downright asked to be photographed.

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Outside as well as inside it was stunning! Just take a look at the entrance hall in the pictures above.

The chest by the wall was a beautiful object with antique writing and paintings of missionaries. It got a little creepy, though, when I found out that it actually contained the bones of those missionaries who had died as martyrs.

Most spectacular was, without question, the sacristy! I stepped foot inside and was immediately amazed by this room. Dark, wooden chests stretched along each side of the room. The walls were completely covered in marble. All the colours worked together just perfectly and created an atmosphere that left me awestruck. Even the painting on the ceiling fit in wonderfully. And so I lingered a bit, admiring this remarkable composition.

I never wondered much about ceiling paintings and how they were made. From pictures of artists sitting on a high scaffolding right below the ceiling, I assumed that’s how it is done. But apparently there is another way. In the case of the sacristy of the Monastery São Vicente de Fora a painted canvas was stuck to the wooden ceiling. Is that a technique used in other places as well?

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Equally impressive was the Braganza Pantheon, the final resting place of several Portuguese royals. The tombs were entirely in black and white marble. Decorated with golden lettering and crowns. Although the design was rather minimalist, the combination of the bright and dark colours with golden highlights gave this place a certain dignity. Even without knowing who was lying there, I immediately felt, it must have been someone very important.

Suddenly there was an exhibition of azulejo art. 190 tiles depicted a scene from one of Jean de La Fontaine’s fables from the 17th century. And there were 38 of these panels! Originally made in the late 18th century for the walls of the monastery’s hallways, it must have been and incredible effort to paint all the 7220 tiles by hand. I am sure there are many depictions of La Fontaine’s collection of fables, but none as astonishing as this one!

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Now this might actually be a well hidden secret – there was access to the roof of the building. Well yeah, there are rooftops and viewpoint all over the city, but the location of the monastery made this view a special one. On top of the Sao Vicente hill, it faced the castle on one sight, offering an exclusive perspective over Alfama, Graca, part of downtown and the river. On the other side waited the National Pantheon, more of the river and the Vasco da Gama bridge. Before climbing up to the roof I had absolutely no idea about this viewpoint. It alone makes the a visit of the monastery a must. Especially on a sunny day the view is just fantastic!

The building, the azulejos, the view… What an amazing place to take pictures! For a big part of my visit I was admiring the beautiful sights and trying to capture them with my camera. I played with the different features on the roofs, towers, spikes and balustrades, and merged them with the sun, clouds and the panorama of Lisbon. Of course, I am not a professional photographer, but every fan of the craft will definitely get their fair share of great pictures.  

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The monastery was yet another example of how wrong biases can be. Only by going and exploring the place, I realized that it had a lot more to offer and was much more intriguing than I expected.

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