The Magic of Manueline: Portugal’s Unique Architecture

Portugal’s golden age, the so-called “Age of Discovery,” did more than just enlarge the territories of the kingdom – it broadened the imaginations of artists, scientists, philosophers, and yes, architects. In the early decades of the 16th century, there emerged a unique style of Portuguese architecture known as “Manueline” (named after King Manuel I), with fascinating ornamentation and motifs that celebrated Portugal’s maritime conquests.

Nautical themes, mythical creatures

Characterized by complex ornamentation in portals, windows, columns, vaults, and arcades, the Manueline style is heavily decorated and includes many design elements based on nautical motifs. Columns may be emblazoned with sculpted ropes, anchors, chains, cables, and navigational devices such as armillary spheres. Religious symbols also abound, and elements of the sea appear in the form of shells, coral, pearls, and ropes of seaweed. Portugal’s colonial expansion to lands as faraway as the Americas and Asia were also reflected in the Manueline style. Delicate filigree work evokes the temples of East India, whereas the exuberant flora and fauna of Brazil signifies Portugal’s expansion into the New World. Interestingly, since many of the creatures and plants depicted were not observed first-hand by the artists, but based on the reports of sailors, they are often quite fanciful and embellished.

Detail of Jeronimos Monastery

The two most important examples of the Manueline style of Portuguese architecture can be seen in Lisbon. Belem Tower, a fortress that sits downriver from the palace on the Tagus River, was not only defensive in nature, but a ceremonial gateway to the capital. Nearby, the famous Jeronimos Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was meant to be a residence for members of the Hieronymite religious order, and a place of worship for seamen entering or leaving port. But the building took on greater import when King Manuel I designated it the final resting place for members of his dynasty. Then, when the caravelles of Vasco da Gama and other explorers began filling the coffers of the realm with gold and other riches from abroad, the monastery expanded and became ever more elaborate.

Belem and the Jeronimos Monastery are just two of the fascinating jewels of Portuguese architecture that you will see on our Portugal & the Douro River Wine Country river cruise.

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