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Medieval Coimbra

Muralha medieval

Coimbra was impressive in the Medieval Period, owing to the grandiosity of a wall that protected an area whose perimeter and urban layout go back to the Roman Era, preserved by the Visigoths and a survivor from the Muslim dominion.

The walled enclosure – the Almedina -, however, did not hold the life of the city in its entirety. Beyond the walls the suburbs grew, and experienced a significant development in the course of the 12th century.

This century hosted the construction of the great temples of Coimbra. In the almedina, the Churches of S. Pedro, and S. João de Almedina were rebuilt, in addition to the Cathedral, and the churches of S. Salvador and S. Cristóvão; outside the walls the Monastery of Santa Cruz was also built and the churches of S. Bartolomeu, S. Tiago and Santa Justa were rebuilt.

Church of Santa Justa

The oldest known reference to this church goes back to the year of 1098. It was located in the proximities of the river, in the space that is nowadays known as the “Terreiro da Erva”.

The documents of its donation, made in 1102 by D. Mauricio, the bishop of Coimbra at the time, to the Cluniac Order, to be used as a hospice for the French, were also preserved.

Still in the 12th century, but under the reign of King Afonso I, the church and its outbuildings were rebuilt by presbyter Rodrigo, dead in 1155, according to the commemorative inscription presently included in the collection of Museum. On the backside of the plaque there is an engraving of a feline with branches pouring out of its mouth; this stone seems to have belonged to the previous church.

The significance of this piece is therefore increased both by its historical and documental value, and because it is the only existent testimony of the first Church of Santa Justa. The great floods and consequent deluges that periodically affected the lower part of the city determined the permanent desertion of this temple, in 1708. Some elements of the temple, with a strong Gothic character, were preserved until mid 20th century, as a testimony of a complete reconstruction carried out in the late 13th century or in the early 14th century. None of that exists today.

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Monastery of Santa Cruz

In 1131 the archbishop Telo inaugurated the construction of the Monastery of Santa Cruz, that would hold the first monastic complex of the city and would later become the most significant and influential religious and cultural institution of its time. It was built outside the city walls, in a land donated by Afonso Henriques, who soon foresaw the influence that this initiative would have in his political project. In 1132 this religious community already held seventy two monks, although the construction works lasted several decades. In 1150, the main altarpiece was consecrated and the church was opened to the public. There is a written reference to the main portal dating from 1166, but in 79 the king donates money and his Moorish slaves, who were no longer needed in the construction of the Cathedral, to the Monastery. Few traces from the Romanesque Period remain in Santa Cruz, but they suffice for the reconstitution of the church’s plan, its façade and the decorations of its interior. The earliest project, whose author is not known, concerned a smaller church and the narthex, very similar to the one found in the Cathedral, was built several years after. It seems inevitable to assume that the same architect worked in both sites, and several circumstances point to the possible presence of Master Roberto in Coimbra around 1157-1160, where he tested models that would later be developed in other parts of the city.


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The carved works, especially the capitals, suggest that Santa Cruz held the first school of stone carvers that would later give birth to the Coimbra Romanesque style and its unique traits. Worthy of attention are four capitals preserved in the Museum, which display a high degree of technical skills and a great resemblance with the Cathedral.

Their physical traits suggest their possible location inside the building: the slender is decorated on its four sides and must have belonged to the tribune; the capital with decorations on three sides only may have belonged to the portal or the window.

Church of São Tiago

The Collegiate Church of S. Tiago was connected to Compostela and was built in an intersection of roads, outside the walls and serving the bourgeois neighborhood of the city.

It was built in the late 12th century or early 13th century, although references dating from the 12th century mention the presence of a previous building in the same location.

Presently, its main testimonies are the main portal and the side portal. The first one is composed by spiral shafts and capitals decorated with vegetal and anthropomorphic motifs; the second portal has prismatic shafts, decorated with the rosaces and scallop shells that symbolize the Saint, and whose patronage establishes a connection between this building and Compostela.

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The Museum owns two capitals that belonged to S. Tiago, and they display an excellent carving work in a style that is very similar to the one found in the Old Cathedral; their original location in the building is not known. They are decorated with zoomorphic motifs – birds and fantastic animals – that are very similar to the themes found in the entrance portal of the building.

Church of São Cristóvão

Nothing survived from this church, demolished in 1860 to give way to the construction of S. Luís Theatre, later renamed as the Sousa Bastos Theatre.

Very little is known of its history. However, the demolishing of the theatre revealed the presence of structures that M. Real interpreted as being a part of a church that existed before Count Henrique and Countess Teresa.

Documents pertaining to the sale of buildings hold proof that the Church of S. Cristóvão existed in 1107-1108. The Romanesque temple, destroyed in the course of the 19th century, was a reconstruction dating from the reign of King Afonso I, possibly started in the early 1170’s, when the main façade of the Church of S. Salvador was ended. Only a description, a plan and a drawing of the ruins of the façade survived from this church. These documental evidences confirm that the temple and the Cathedral where very similar, the latter being older. The only difference is the tympanum decorated with the Agnus Dei surrounded by the Tetramorph.

But what draws it closer to the Cathedral is the quality of its carvings, testified by the only architectonic elements that survived its destruction – a set of capitals, eight of them belonging to the collection of the Museum.

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Sé Velha

The Romanesque Cathedral of Coimbra, renamed Old Cathedral when its role was transferred to the College of Jesus, in the course of the 18th century, is one of the most important examples of the Portuguese Romanesque Style. The date that marked the beginning of its construction is not known from a reliable source. However, a document dating from 1147 and pertaining to the consecration of the bishop João Anaia in the church of Santa Maria – the building that preceded the Romanesque church - suggests that the construction of this new church began sometime between that date and the first years of the 1150’s , by the same prelate.

In 1162 Miguel Salomão succeeded him, and summoned Master Roberto, who was at the time engaged in the construction of the Cathedral in Lisbon, to improve the construction works of his cathedral, including the western portal, concluded in 1172. This year marked the death of Master Bernardo, working on the site since at least 1162. The fact that he may have been the author behind the first project remains uncertain.

 Interior da Sé Velha Interior of Sé Velha

Strongly influenced by the plans and the ambience of the great pilgrimage churches in Italy, France and Spain, in the Way of Santiago, the Cathedral reveals a highly significant artistic level, bringing together international standards, the creativity of French architects and the Mudejar tradition.

The presence of Master Roberto is very clear in the characteristics of the narthex and in the early stages of the skylight and the cloister.

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The oldest Christian epigraphic testimony from the Cathedral of Coimbra is an inscription discovered in 1895, later included in the collection of the Museum and presently returned (as a deposit), to its original location. It is a lintel, dated from the last quarter of the 11th century or the beginning of the 12th century.

Church of São Salvador

Like many other churches in Coimbra, the Romanesque church of S. Salvador replaced an older church, devoted to the same patron. Its existence is testified in a document dating from 1064, but nothing survived from it. Its reconstruction, in a Romanesque style, dates from the reign of King Afonso I, and the commemorative inscription located next to the portal clearly dates it from 1179, as well as its commissioning by the alvazir Estêvão Martins. This portal was mutilated during the reconstruction carried out in the 18th century, which misrepresented the church in its entirety, but it is directly connected to the portal of the Cathedral, a project developed by the architect Roberto, summoned to Coimbra to “carry out some improvements in the construction works [of the Cathedral] and the portal”, concluded in 1172. Lápide comemorativa, cravada junto do portal, onde se lê que este foi executado em 1179, a expensas do alvazir Estêvão Martins. Commemorative inscription,
engraved next to the portal, where
it is read that its execution is dated
from 1179 and commissioned
by the alvazir Estêvão Martins."



Church of São João de Almedina

The oldest reference to the Church of S. João de Almedina dates from 1083, but it is likely that the church already existed in 1064, as well as its neighboring Church of S. Salvador, mentioned in a document dated from the same year.

It is believed that this church was replaced by the new ecclaesia whose commissioning was proposed by D. Sesnando – the governor of Coimbra since the final reconquest of the city from the Muslims - in his will, dated from 1087.

Construction works were carried out in S. João between 1128 and 1131, by initiative of the bishop Bernardo (1128-1146). The content of these works is not known, but they might have involved the erection of the church and cloister, partially preserved and discovered in the course of the 20th century, (MNMC 610) when the Episcopal palace was converted into a museum.

When the cloister was discovered, a small number of significant vestiges from a Romanesque church, whose consecration is known to have occurred between 1192 and 1206, were also found. Its construction probably began after the new Cathedral was opened to the cult, that is, in the 1170’s.

In fact, while the Cathedral remained closed to the public, the Church of S. João – that belonged to the Episcopal Palace – hosted the events that would normally take place in the Cathedral. Nothing is known of the architectural and decorative program of this Romanesque temple, and this gap can be explained by its complete destruction in the late 17th century, to give way to the building that still exists in our days.

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Very few decorative elements have survived. Anthropomorphic images and the adoption of grotesque motifs stand out in these carving works (MNMC 10072).

Some modillions decorated with masks (E445) or obscene representations (MNMC 3062, MNMC 10126) have survived. Surviving plaques with fragments of human depictions suggest the existence of a portal with a rich iconographic program (MNMC10120, MNMC 10085, MNMC 10116).

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The most important piece, however, is a unique bust of a deacon saint, possibly St. John the Evangelist, (MNMC 10127), whose patronage was assigned to the Church of S. João de Almedina.

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Church of São Pedro

Destroyed in the course of the 20th century, so the University Campus could be built, was a temple rebuilt in the late 18th century. Despite being considered a great reforming work it preserved the general plan of the previous church, from the second half of the 12th century.

Demolição da Igreja de São Pedro .

The capitals and other ornamental elements, included in the collection of the Machado de Castro Museum in 1945, are from that period. Their themes belong to an artistic movement that was introduced by the Benedictines in Portugal and whose development reached a late peak in the last quarter of the 12th century.

Existent documents, dated from 1087 to 1096, refer that the Church of S. Pedro, that belonged to the Monastery of Lorvão, and its enclosed cemetery were built during those years. The later Romanesque church replaced this first temple, dedicated to St. Peter and located inside the city walls.

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Particularly significant are the capitals of S. Pedro, displaying three generally asymmetrical sides that suggest their original location inside the building. Their themes have a strong vegetal and a zoomorphic character, and can be divided in three main groups: the zoomorphic, the vegetal-zoomorphic and the stylized vegetal ornaments.

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Of the motifs most frequently observed in the first group are the standing lions seizing their prey (depicted by heads) with their paws, devouring them, or pouring foliages from their mouths (E339). Birds drinking from a foliar chalice (E369) and the mermaid, here holding a fish and her own tail (E338), are also characteristic of this period.

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The second group is composed by interlaced vegetal motifs, pouring out of felines’ mouths and entwining foliages that surround pines or stylized fruits (E370).