Visit: 6th December 2016
Having spent the night in Elvas, we had a long drive ahead of us from the eastern half of Portugal to the west. We were heading 105 miles to a golden triangle of World Heritage monasteries. Each of these three is a WHS in its own right, and no more than 30 miles distant from one another. The first node turned out to be my favourite: the Convent of Christ, perched on a hilltop overlooking the small city of Tomar.
Before it became a convent the site was a castle built by the Knights Templar – soldier-monks who fought to expel the Moors from the Iberian territories they called the ‘Cordoba Caliphate’. It still retains its fortifications, which now protect orange trees and some of Portugal’s national treasures from nothing more deadly than stray dogs.
In the 14th century the king of France, who was evidently in the ascendancy at the time, booted out the knights in order to seize their riches. It was after this that their church was extended and modified into a convent for monks.
Its most impressive feature is this enormous octagonal altar beneath a 16-segment dome. Repeated references to the number 8 are examples of medieval Christian numerology. There were eight survivors of Noah’s Ark in the Old Testament, and in the New we are told that Jesus was resurrected on the first day of the week after he was crucified (interpreted to mean the eighth day).
The Manueline (a Gothic/Renaissance mix unique to Portugal) nave is covered in ornate designs commemorating the Portuguese Age of Discovery. The elaborate sculpted ropes bring to mind the vessels that bore explorers including Vasco da Gama to far-flung places in Africa, Asia and South America.
The convent’s cloisters are full of details like the elegant spiral staircase, below. The Convent of Christ had been remarkably quiet, though I suppose that may have been because we visited on a Tuesday afternoon in December. After walking along the ramparts it was time to continue our journey onward to another monastery at Batalha.