The Convent of Christ in Tomar (in Portuguese, Convento de Cristo) was one of the first Portuguese monuments inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, in the year 1983. Founded by the Knights Templar as a symbol of the Christian Reconquista, its construction began in 1160 and lasted more than five centuries!
As a result, the Convent of Christ incorporated different architectural styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque. With the extinction of the Order of Solomon’s Temple in the 14th century, the medieval castle was handed over to the newly created Order of Christ, adopting its current name!
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- Brief History of the Convent of Christ
- How to Get to the Convent of Christ
- What to See at the Convent of Christ
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- More Posts about Religious Temples
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Brief History of the Convent of Christ
The history of the Convent of Christ is directly related to the arrival of the Order of Solomon’s Temple to the Iberian Peninsula, in the context of the Christian Reconquista. Now, between the 1130s and 1170s, Afonso Henriques fought against Muslim rule in the current districts of Leiria, Santarém, Lisbon, Setúbal, Évora, and Beja. And it was the Templars who most helped the first king of Portugal, in the various battles, captures, and conquests!
As a way of thanking them for the help given in combat, Afonso Henriques offered a large part of the newly conquered region to the Knights Templar. Here, the role of Gualdim Pais, the 6th Grand Master of the Order of Solomon’s Temple in Portugal and founder of the cities of Tomar and Pombal (including their castles and also those of Almourol, Idanha-a-Nova, and Monsanto) stands out.
From the first phase of works on the Convent of Christ, at the end of the 12th century, its Romanesque church still remains, which includes the magnificent octagonal charola. But with the end of the Knights Templar in 1312, the military fortress was transferred to the Order of Christ, of which it became the seat in 1357.
This was followed by the Gothic-style expansions of the new convent, carried out by Prince Henry the Navigator during the first half of the 15th century. And the beginning of the 16th century marks the projection of the new Manueline church, with its iconic “Window of the Chapter House”. Decades later, the current Convent of Christ continued to take shape with Renaissance and Mannerist spaces, commissioned by the kings João III and Filipe I.
Did you know that the Convent of Christ in Tomar was part of Portugal’s first set of inscriptions on the UNESCO World Heritage List? This 7th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in Florence (Italy), between December 5th and 9th, 1983.
Three other Portuguese sites were announced in the session: the Central Zone of the Town of Angra do Heroismo in the Azores; the Monastery of Batalha; and the Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém in Lisbon.
Nowadays, Portugal is the ninth country in Europe and the eighteenth country in the world with the most UNESCO sites, tied with Poland. It has seventeen heritage assets (both cultural and natural) inscribed on the world list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
In the meantime, I’ve already had the opportunity to visit fourteen of them:
- Alto Douro Wine Region (2001)
- Convent of Christ in Tomar (1983)
- Cultural Landscape of Sintra (1995) – Chalet of the Countess of Edla, Convent of the Capuchos, Moorish Castle, National Palace of Pena, National Palace of Sintra, Palace of Monserrate, Quinta da Regaleira, Villa Sassetti
- Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications (2012)
- Historic Center of Évora (1986)
- Historic Center of Guimarães (2001)
- Historic Center of Porto, Luiz I Bridge, and Monastery of Serra do Pilar (1996)
- Monastery of Alcobaça (1989)
- Monastery of Batalha (1983)
- Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém in Lisbon (1983)
- Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley (1998, 2010)
- Royal Building of Mafra – Palace, Basilica, Convent, Cerco Garden, and Hunting Park (Tapada) (2019)
- Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga (2019)
- University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia (2012)
How to Get to the Convent of Christ
The Convent of Christ is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Portugal, not only for its unique architecture but also for its important historical context. It’s therefore only natural that this monumental ensemble of buildings and structures receives more than 100,000 annual visitors!
In my opinion, the best way to visit the Convent of Christ (and the city of Tomar) is on a day trip from Lisbon. And to get there from the Portuguese capital, you have two options: travel by car (about 135 km) or by public transportation (2 hours by regional train or 1h45 by bus).
However, Tomar is also an excellent stop on a road trip through the Médio Tejo sub-region or the Santarém district! In that case, I suggest you explore other destinations in the vicinity: Constância (20 km), Entroncamento (22 km), Vila Nova da Barquinha (24 km), Torres Novas (26 km), Abrantes (30 km), or Sardoal (32 km).
Opening Hours & Ticket Prices
The Convent of Christ is open every day, from 9 am to 5:30 pm (from October to May) or from 9 am to 6:30 pm (from June to September), with the last entry at 5 pm and at 6 pm, respectively. The only closing days are January 1st, March 1st (Tomar Day), Easter Sunday, May 1st, December 24th and 25th.
As for tickets, they cost €6 (over 12 years old) or €3 (Student Card, Youth Card, and seniors aged 65 and over). And admission is free on Sundays and holidays, for all citizens residing in Portugal (upon presentation of proof)!
What to See at the Convent of Christ
Once you cross the Castle Entrance and go up the access ramp, the first point of interest you’ll pass is the Courtyard of the Convent of Christ (in Portuguese, Terreiro).
These days, this Courtyard is a lush formal garden, with small trees and boxwood hedges arranged symmetrically.
Nevertheless, when the Convent of Christ didn’t exist yet and the monumental complex was limited to the Tomar Castle, this terrace was an imposing place-of-arms!
In the Middle Ages, the place-of-arms used to be the widest and most central place in a castle or fortress. In general, it was used to concentrate the military garrison, having a direct connection to the various gates and guard posts on the walls.
If you go up a ramp of stone steps, hidden in the wall that surrounds the Courtyard of the Convent of Christ, you’ll reach the Citadel of the Tomar Castle (in Portuguese, Alcáçova), the last testimony of the old Templar military ensemble. And, if you’re interested, you can go through almost its entire length, taking the opportunity to enjoy the panoramic views!
Like many other medieval castles and fortresses, the Citadel of the Tomar Castle was built at the highest point of the terrain and was equipped with walls, turrets, a chemin de ronde, and, of course, a keep. Its main functions were to watch over and defend the fortification from enemy attacks and invasions.
Muralhas & Chemin de Ronde
After exploring the Citadel, I recommend that you don’t enter the Convent of Christ yet and follow the Chemin de Ronde or Allure (in Portuguese, Caminho de Ronda or Adarve) instead, to see the rest of the Walls of the Tomar Castle from up close. And don’t forget to pay attention to the route, as it’s narrow and winding!
In addition to surrounding the oldest part of the monument, the Walls of the Tomar Castle (in Portuguese, Muralhas) were used by the friars of the Convent of Christ to protect their agricultural crops (especially fruit trees, vegetables, and aromatic herbs).
The Pegões Aqueduct or Aqueduct of the Convent of Christ (in Portuguese, Aqueduto dos Pegões or Aqueduto do Convento de Cristo) is a structure about 6 km long, concretized in the reigns of Filipe I and Filipe II (more precisely, between 1593 and 1614).
This large hydraulic energy project transported water from four springs not only to the Convent of Christ but also to the Fence of the Seven Hills (or the National Forest of the Seven Hills, as it’s designated today).
King Filipe I commissioned the Italian military architect and engineer Filipe Terzio to direct the project and this was later succeeded by the Portuguese architect Pedro Fernando de Torres.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to visit the Pegões Aqueduct, but you can see it through a gate installed at the back of the Former Chapter House.
Former Chapter House
The Former Chapter House (in Portuguese, Antiga Casa do Capítulo) is a very photogenic ruin, which you can admire before entering the cloisters, halls, and corridors of the Convent of Christ. And, contrary to what you might think at first glance, this building was not destroyed or razed to the ground. Simply, it was never finished!
The Former Chapter House was started around 1515, taking advantage of a part of the old medieval wall. Like any other Chapter House in a convent, monastery, or collegiate church, it was intended to be the place where meetings were held between the knightly friars of the Order of Christ and their superiors.
The Cemetery Cloister (in Portuguese, Claustro do Cemitério) is the first point of interest that you’ll be able to visit inside the Convent of Christ.
Designed in Gothic style by the architect Fernão Gonçalves, it was the place where the funeral processions and burials of the knight friars took place (hence the name).
The Cemetery Cloister was built by Prince Henry the Navigator, after he was appointed Governor and Administrator of the Order of Christ by a Papal bull, on May 25th, 1420.
At that time, Prince Henry the Navigator made the Convent of Christ his official residence. In other words, the military and religious complex adopted a palatial facet, as the infante was the son of King João I!
The Portocarreiros Chapel (in Portuguese, Capela dos Portocarreiros) owes its name to the man who had it edified in 1626: António Portocarreiro.
Built as a family chapel for António Portocarreiro, his wife, and their descendants, the Portocarreiros Chapel is covered with 17th-century tiles, in shades of blue, white, and yellow.
Interestingly, the pattern of these tiles is called “diamond point” and has a three-dimensional effect at first glance. A clear example of this type of tile is the one that covers the lower part of the altar wall.
On the other hand, on the side walls, you’ll find eleven panels of 18th-century tiles, which illustrate scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.
Church & Charola
The Church of the Convent of Christ (in Portuguese, Igreja) was built between 1510 and 1515, by the master architects Diogo Arruda and João de Castilho – the latter, one of the main responsible for the works of the Jerónimos Monastery. This new main body had a nave, a high choir, and a low choir, while the Charola became the main chapel.
As I mentioned earlier, the Charola of the Convent of Christ is one of the oldest structures in the monument. In fact, the Charola already existed when it was called Tomar Castle and not Convent of Christ. Inspired by the Temple of Jerusalem, this primitive Romanesque oratory is a real treat for the eyes!
Inside the Charola, it’s possible to admire a rich iconographic decoration, between wall paintings of biblical scenes and polychrome wood sculptures. Of the dozens of characters represented, there are angels, saints, prophets, and doctors of the Church, in addition to Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the apostles.
The Main Cloister of the Convent of Christ was started in the 1530s, by João de Castilho and at the request of King João III. Also called the Great Cloister or Cloister of King João III, it’s actually an overlap of two cloisters made in different periods!
Although the first phase took place between 1530 and 1533, the true Renaissance masterpiece took shape from 1557-58 to 1562 by the hand of Diogo de Torralva. The architect – another of the geniuses associated with the Jerónimos Monastery – replaced the previous Main Cloister, but without completely demolishing it!
Cloister of Saint Barbara & Manueline Window
The Cloister of Saint Barbara or Small Cloister (in Portuguese, Claustro de Santa Bárbara or Claustro Pequeno) dates from the 1530s, when João de Castilho was the supervisor of the work campaign for the Convent of Christ. Originally composed of two floors, the upper floor of the Cloister of Saint Barbara was demolished in 1843, by order of King Fernando II. And why? To clear the views of the fabulous Manueline Window!
The Manueline Window is the most famous window in Portugal and is located on the western façade of the Church of the Convent of Christ. Also known as the Chapter House Window, it’s the maximum reference of the Manueline style, with elaborate nautical (ropes, buoys, wood), regal (cross of the Order of Christ, armillary sphere, coat of arms of the kingdom), and religious (branches and leaves of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Jesse) symbols.
The Hostelry Cloister (in Portuguese, Claustro da Hospedaria) was built between 1541 and 1542, with a very noble purpose: to temporarily host travelers visiting the Convent of Christ (hence the name).
These people who arrived at the Convent of Christ could either be pilgrims of the people, who came in promise or out of devotion; members of the nobility and clergy, who were passing through the region; or even friars and knights of the Order of Christ, who wanted to receive the prior’s blessing.
Visitors from the higher social classes were accommodated on the upper floor of the Hostelry Cloister – while the rest were housed on the ground floor, between the servants’ chambers (in the east wing), the stables (in the north wing), and the Procurator’s House (in the west wing).
Remember I mentioned that the Main Cloister was an overlap of two cloisters? Well, in the colonnaded galleries of the same, you can still find traces of the Primitive Cloister (in Portuguese, Claustro Primitivo)!
The Primitive Cloister is precisely what remains of the original cloister of João de Castilho – conceived between 1533 and 1545 – before its partial demolition in 1557.
One of the surviving structures was the entrance of the monks to the Chapter House, with a typical early Renaissance decoration and quite contrasting with the austere style of Diogo Torralva. The medallions that crown it contains the busts of Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, Friar António de Lisboa, King João III, and the Infanta Maria (his daughter).
The Refectory of the Convent of Christ (in Portuguese, Refeitório) is another space signed by João de Castilho. According to the inscriptions on the pulpits, this rectangular room was concluded between 1535 and 1536.
Speaking of pulpits, have you noticed that there are two in the center of the Refectory (one on each side)? These were meant for reading during meals!
Underneath the Refectory was a wine and oil cellar, as well as several areas for preserving food and storing agricultural tools.
The latter were used in the orange grove (or Friars’ Vegetable Garden) and in the Fence of the Convent of Christ (now nicknamed the National Forest of the Seven Hills).
The Kitchen of the Convent of Christ (in Portuguese, Cozinha) was completed in the mid-16th century and is separated from the Refectory by an antechamber – which served as a pantry and today displays a collection of ceramics from the convent’s daily life.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, monastic tableware was made of faience and could have symbols alluding to the religious order of the convent/monastery or to the place where it was situated. And in the case of the Convent of Christ, tableware with the cross of the Order of Christ, dates, or even the legend “Convent of the Christ” was found!
Normally, each monk had three pieces of crockery: a drinking bowl (for broths or soups); a plate (for solid foods); and a goblet (for water or wine).
Cloister of the Crows
The Cloister of the Crows (in Portuguese, Claustro dos Corvos) is an outdoor space with a square plan, where the monks dedicated themselves to intellectual and spiritual activities such as reading, writing, praying, and meditation.
In fact, the Bookstore and the Scriptorium (the place where handwritten books were produced) of the Convent of Christ were just a few steps away from the Cloister of the Crows – which was also used to access the Kitchen and the Refectory.
Its construction took place in two phases (the first between 1537 and 1539 and the second between 1543 and 1546), marking the end of the work campaign promoted by King João III.
It’s possible to visit the Cistern of the Cloister of the Crows, one of those that supplied the Convent of Christ!
Cloister of Micha
The Cloister of Micha (in Portuguese, Claustro da Micha) was created to function as a convent gatehouse and currently serves as an exit for visitors to the Convent of Christ. Its name is a reference to the pieces of bread that were distributed here to the poor and needy, since “micha” (or “micho”) is a type of rustic bread made with a mixture of several flours.
The Cloister of Micha dates from 1543, even though it only received its sixteenth-century gate in 1620 after it had been transferred from the original convent gatehouse. The portico was designed by João de Castilho and witnessed, for a long time, the convent community’s only contact with the outside world!
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