Back in July I went on a family holiday to Portugal, or more particularly to the area near to Tomar. The area is famous for its links to the Knights Templar and the Crusades in particular the city of Tomar itself, which plays host to the beautiful stronghold of the Convento De Cristo (Convent of Christ). Whilst we were staying there, we took a trip up to the Convento and I was blown away by it’s beauty and it’s history.
The Convento was originally a Templar building, built by Gualdim Pais the master of the Order of the Temple in around 1160 and it later became the headquarters for the Portuguese order. The huge castle complex was built as part of a network of defence structures to protect Portugal from the Moors. The most famous part of the castle, the round church (seen in the photo above) was built in the second half of the twelfth century and modelled on other holy places such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem which the crusaders believed to be a remnant of the Temple of Soloman. When Gualdim began building the castle, he built it not only as a defensive structure but also to show the importance of the Order.
After the Order of the Temple, more commonly known as the Knights Templar, lost favour and became suppressed many of its members in Portugal transferred over to the Order of Christ along with much of its assets. The Convento became the seat of the Order of Christ in 1357 – somewhat ironic considering as how once the magnificent castle had been the seat of the Order of the Temple originally. It was, for all intents and purposes, back to where it all began. In fact, there were stark similarities between the two orders – the monks still wore the same insignia, the same habits and were still a military order – they still carried out the same work, maintained Templar properties, lived by the same crusading spirit and all lived by Cistercian rules. In 1417, the famous Henry the Navigator took over as Governor and Administrator, keeping the crusading spirit alive and sending the order on missions of discovery and setting out to conquer Asia. However during the sixteenth century the organisation of the Order was completely reformed. Things that had been the same since the days of King Dinis and the original order were suddenly changed. The Knights and Friars were separated and it became a completely closed monastic order living by the rules of St Benedict and the only thing left as evidence of the Templars military purpose was the castle itself.
As we walked around the site, now owned by UNESCO and an official World Heritage Site, I was amazed at the amount of history there. Everywhere you turned there were buildings from different time periods. Right next to the entrance around by the rotunda were the oldest parts of the castle dating to the 1100’s, and the remains of the original chapels, remains of the living quarters. Yet right next to it were the most beautiful preserved cloisters and walkways. Every inch of the building was beautiful and as I wandered around I could imagine Templar Knights clanking around the corridors with their chain mail and heavy boots. There was something incredibly peaceful about the whole place, despite the many tourists wandering around.
The photo above is the most amazing carving. The whole wall of the chapel is full of these beautiful carvings, all of which have some sort of meaning to the building and its history. This one symbol itself is so full of meaning its unreal with one side of the facade showing spiritual meaning and the other more earthly. The side with the buckle is the earthly side, and shows how the Order was related to those who kept it going, and the monarchy, its links to those who kept them grounded to the world of men. For instance on this side there is also links to the Tudor family, with the heraldic device of the Order of the Garter being shown, a testament to the investiture of King Manuel to the Order Of The Garter by Henry VII. This can also be seen on a buttress in the chapel.
As you walk along one of the walkways of the Great Cloister you come across the little gem above. I loved this so much, and it looks to be a more modern addition and proves to be a stark reminder of the original purpose of this beautiful building.
There is just no way that I can write down all of the wonderful history about this fantastic building. But it woke in me a fascination with the Templar order (so much so I have began adding books on the Templars and Crusades to my collection) which I intend to keep on researching, and one day I hope to visit this beautiful building again and spending more time studying the beautiful western facade to try and work out exactly what is going on and all of the symbolism in the carvings, and immersing myself in the history of the Order of the Temple and the Order of Christ. Below are just a few more photographs from my visit to the Convento.
This is probably the most photographed view in the entire Castle – it’s a very very tiny spiral staircase leading down from the roof of the Convento back down to the inside.
Pereira, P, 2009, The Convent of Christ, Tomar, Scala: London
(website) http://www.conventocristo.pt/pt/index.php accessed 30th September 2011
(website) http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/265 accessed 30th September 2011