Convent of Christ, Portugal

Convent of Christ, Portugal

The Convent of Christ (Convento de Cristo) in Tomar, Portugal is a former Roman Catholic convent that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the 12th century, it was originally the Convent of the Knights Templar of Tomar. When the order was dissolved, control of the convent was transferred to the Knights of the Order of Christ in 1344. A representative example of the Manueline style that developed uniquely in Portugal in the 16th century, the Convent of Christ was designed as a monument symbolising the Christian Reconquest of Muslim-controlled territories.

The powerful Knights Templar was formed around the 12th century by a French knight to protect Christian pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem, some of whom were getting robbed and killed as they made their way through Muslim-controlled territories. Originally known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, they later called themselves the Knights Templar after they set up headquarters in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. After many successful years, they received criticisms for their growing wealth, and soon many Templar members were being arrested, tortured, and killed. Pope Clement V dissolved the order in 1312.

Its Portuguese branch was named the Knights of the Order of Christ, instituted by Pope John XXII. Prince Henry the Navigator served as administrator general of the Order of Christ, amassing great wealth that he then used to sponsor maritime expeditions.

After serving as the stronghold of two Catholic orders, the Convent of Christ in Tomar also witnessed the recognition of King Philip II of Spain as the new ruler of Portugal following a succession crisis. Philip’s claim to the throne was through his mother, Isabella, the second child of Manuel I. This united the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, putting the entire Iberian Peninsula, as well as Portuguese colonies abroad, under the rule of Spain for six centuries.

The Convent of Christ is a sprawling Templar castle complex, with chapels and cloisters in varied architectural styles added by successive Portuguese kings. When Tomar was founded, most of the residents of the medieval town lived behind its protective walls.

The beautiful Templar Church (charola or rotunda) is a round church connected by arches to a gallery, a common architectural design among Templar churches. This was completed under Grand Master Gualdim Pais around 1160. When you visit Tomar, you will find a statue of Pais in Tomar’s Republic Square.

Under Prince Henry, a Gothic nave was added, turning the original round church into the apse, which is where the altar is located in Roman Catholic churches. From 1510, Manuel I had the nave redesigned. In the centre of the high-ceilinged church is an intricate Gothic altar, with the interior decorated with late Gothic and Manueline sculptures, statues, and paintings.

The most famous element of the nave is the Manueline window, located on the church’s western side, its decoration showcasing the royal and nautical elements of the Manueline style: the Cross of the Order of Christ, armillary sphere, and a tangle of carvings depicting seaweed and ropes.

You can visit Tomar on a day trip from Lisbon, visiting the convent and the Castle of Almourol, a castle on a small island in the middle of the Tagus River, about 30 kilometres away.