On my second day in Portugal, we headed just down the road to the city of Tomar, which is overlooked by the imposing facade of the Convento de Cristo. This building dates back to the Roman period but is most famous for its links to the Templars, and it’s stunning architecture.
In 1160, under the supervision of Gualdim Pais (Master of the Portuguese Templars), work began on rebuilding Tomar castle. The original plan had been to build a Templar fortress in nearby Ceras but this was abandoned. One can still see parts of the original fortress in the complex of the Convento complex.
But it is the Rotunda that really catches your eye as you walk into the complex, through the Sun Gate and past the imposing ramps against the castle walls.
The rotunda is what makes the Convento de Cristo so famous – it is one of the most original and emblematic examples of Templar architecture in the world. The interior is particularly beautiful and laid out in a circle which follows the pattern of many Templar buildings – just look at the Templar Church in London! The building of this magnificent structure began in the second half of the twelfth century and continued to around 1190 – it was modelled on other Holy places such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which held a special significance to the Templar Order.
After the Templar Order was dissolved in 1307, many of its members in Portugal transferred over to another religious military order, the Order of Christ, rather than face imprisonment and execution and in 1357 the Convento became the official headquarters of the order. This was somewhat ironic given that the Convento had originally been the headquarters of the Templars in Portugal. Indeed there was barely any difference between the two orders – the Brothers still wore the same insignia and were still a military order who carried out the same work as they had before. They even continued to live under Cistercian rule.
As you walk around this magnificent site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is so easy to get lost in your imagination and walk alongside Templar knights in their armour, to hear the bustle of the kitchens and the laughter in the banqueting hall. It really is the perfect place for someone who lives and breathes history. There is something incredibly special about the Convento and, despite the many tourists wandering around, it really is a very peaceful place.
Another famous part of the Convento is the Manueline window on the Western facade. Just one look at the carvings here takes your breath away.
The iconography of the window is clearly split into two halves – one is more spiritual and the other more earthly. The earthly side of the window is dominated by the most beautiful carving of a belt buckle. There are a number of coats of arms on this side as well as carvings of knights and roots connected with the earth. The spiritual side is covered in religious carvings such as angels and tree roots not connected to the earth. Interestingly, on the earthly side of the window there are carvings that show links to the Tudor family – you can see the heraldic device of the Order of the Garter, a testament to the investiture of King Manuel to the Order of the Garter by King Henry VII.
Everywhere you look are beautiful little architectural gems. You walk into the cloisters only to see a fountain in the shape of a Templar cross. There are fabulous little carvings everywhere, all of which have meaning, and the place is covered in the most beautiful tile work.
The Convento really is worth a visit and I highly recommend doing so if you ever find yourself in the area. It is so full of history that it’s hard to know where to look, and it really does allow you to step back in time.