One of the first and definitely grandest example of Manueline architecture to be found anywhere in Portugal; the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem is the embodiment of Portugal's exuberance during the Age of Discoveries. This is recognised in by the UNESCO World Heritage monument the monastery received in 1983.
Constructing such an opulent and grand building as the Jerónimos Monastery would have been extraordinarily expensive. However, it is no coincidence that the monastery was built to give thanks for the success of Vasco da Gama's first voyage to India. It is even said that the spices and goods he returned with were valuable enough to fund the building. Whether or not this is true the money certainly came from Portugal's interests in Africa, Asia and South America.
That voyage took place in 1498 during the reign of King Manuel I and it was to fulfil his promise that work began in 1502. The site chosen, on the banks of the River Tejo, replaced a small hermitage dedicated to St Mary by Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century.
French architect Diogo de Boitaca was initially employed to design the monastery. He is widely credited as the originator of Manueline architecture as the designer of the Igreja de Jesus in Setúbal.
In 1517 the Spanish architect João de Castilho took over work on the monastery. It is he who we have to thank for the fantastically ornate 100ft (33m) high main entrance to the building. Adorned with a number of statues, including one of Henry the Navigator this really is Manueline styling at its finest.
The interior of the monastery does not disappoint either. The main church nave consists of huge intricately carved pillars rise up to support the lierne vaulted ceiling. It is the cloisters though that really impress. Consisting of two levels there is barely a surface that is not adorned with some sort of Manueline sculpture. The pillars and arches are carved into coils of rope, sea creatures, palms and other nautical motifs in a nod to Da Gama's voyages.
Completed in around 1600 the monastery survived the 1755 earthquake with only minor damage to the high altar. From the earliest days the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Belém was home to monks of the Order of St Jerome (or Jerónimos). But this was intended to be much more than just a grand monastery; it was the physical embodiment of the Age of the Discoveries and also mausoleum for King Manuel and his line.
Along with King Manuel, the monastery contains the tombs of several other notable figures from Portuguese history. From the literary world are poets Fernando Pessoa, Alexandre Herculano and most fittingly Luis Camões, author The Lusiads, a tale of Da Gama's voyages. Pride of place though, goes to Vasco Da Gama himself, with his tomb positioned just inside the main portal.
In 1833 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries the building was appropriated by the state and the Hieronymite monks who had occupied it for 400 years left. Now known as the 'Real Casa Pia de Lisboa' the building was largely unoccupied and its condition began to suffer. However, in 1860 a major restoration began which would see not only repairs to the existing structure but the addition of several features including a new rose window and towers. A further bout of restorations in 1940 saw the space in front of the monastery being turned into a large formal garden.