Churches are designed to strike awe into the hearts and minds of those who enter them, to bring them to a belief in God, of whatever conviction. I’ve always known this but mostly I’ve ended up in awe of the architects and builders who can get these massive and generally beautiful buildings to stand up, to make those spires and domes soar so high. But the day I walked into the Church of Santa Maria at Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon was the day I understood what church architecture was all about.
This place is special. Somehow the combinations of light and space, sound and color, made me feel awed. I felt dizzy and quite overcome by emotion. An incredible example of European Gothic architecture, the monastery was built in 1502, at the height of Portugal’s power and wealth, to commemorate and give thanks for the 1497 voyage of Vasco da Gama. Portugal’s famous explorer captained the first ships to sail to India via the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, thereby avoiding the monopolizing Venetians who controlled and taxed traffic in the Mediterranean. Gama and his crew spent the night before their voyage in a hermitage on this site so it seemed natural to build an enormous monastery there giving thanks to the Virgin Mary for his safe voyage. Gama’s tomb is just inside the entrance.
The cloisters are beautiful with the columns depict nautical elements such as rope and sea monsters. And if you need reviving after the monastery’s architectural splendor works its magic on you, the best Portuguese Tarts (Pasteis de Nata) are found nearby at Casa Pasteis de Belem, where they’ve been making these delicious custardy treats since 1837.