The Church of Saint Martin of Mouros stands on a mountain top that elevates itself over the final stretch of the Bestança brook, on its way to the Douro river.
Built on an easily defensible area, featuring steep slopes and remarkable granite massifs, this Church, with a silhouette that imposes itself from the different points of the valley, stands out from the landscape of the Meadas mountain range in a very peculiar way due to its unique physiognomy.
The first news about any kind of spatial occupation date back to the hill fort occupation and to the subsequent Romanization period, of which this territory has very abundant traces.
However, we should highlight that, mainly in the Middle Ages, there were already news about the taking of the castle by the army of Ferdinand the Great – King of Castile (1035-1065) and Leon (1037-1065) -, thus integrating São Martinho into an important defensive line along the Douro river that included the Castles of Lamego and of Castro de Rei (Tarouca).
We should remember that it was after the taking of Lamego, on November 29th, 1057, that the Christian armies of Ferdinand the Great took the Castles of Cárquere and São Martinho Mouros.
The latter defensive structure, of which some traces still survive, is located to the west of the existing village, being certainly an heiress of the hill fort; the primitive Christian temple, which was built close to its fence, was dedicated to the Saviour like so many others at the time.
The invocation is simultaneously a sign of the taking and a war cry, which takes shape in the iconography of Christ, as King and Justicer. Once the Castle had been taken and the space had been made sacred, the walled town resumed its life along the fertile Bestança valley.
Although the historical data relating to the Church of Saint Martin of Mouros are scarce, the first documented references to the building may be found from the 13th century onwards.
From being a royal patronage – according to the information of the “Inquirições” [administrative enquiries] of 1258 – the Church was handed over to the House of Marialva (15th century) and to the University of Coimbra (16th century).
The existence of an inscription, dated back to 1217, engraved on the chancel’s outer face (north side, first row above the footing and fifth ashlar from the right) takes us back to the beginning of the construction of this Church or marks the completion of a first constructive phase, possibly of the chevet. Its initial design was bold, foreseeing the existence of three vaulted naves, but these were never built.
In the Modern Age, and especially during the Baroque period, there were changes in its spatial nature and decoration, with an emphasis on the main altarpiece – showing the national style – with a Eucharistic throne surmounted by a representation of the Ascension of Christ.
The nave’s altarpieces, also manufactured according to the so-called national baroque language, are simpler than the largest one. The collateral altarpieces are consecrated to the Lord of the Stigmata and to Our Lady of the Rosary, and the lateral one (on the nave’s right side) to Our Lady of the Exile.
In the chancel, two oil paintings on wood boards made around 1530 stand out; they depict scenes from the life of the charitable and mystical Saint Martin. These works are ascribed to the Ferreirim Masters.
On the other hand, the frescoes found on the nave’s collateral walls may be works from the final years of the 15th century; the depictions (currently hidden by the altarpieces) of Saint Martin and of an unknown female figure wearing a Benedictine habit are the only remaining ones.
We should also note the presence, in different altars and on a number of corbels, of imagery pieces showing a good artistic quality, from which we highlight the one representing Saint Martin of Tours, the patron saint.
1057 – Taking of the Castle of Saint Martin to the “Moors” by Ferdinand the Great;
1111 – The Countess D. Teresa grants the charter to São Martinho de Mouros;
1217 – The year that marks the beginning of the construction of the Church of Saint Martin;
1258 – The “Inquirições” [administrative enquiries] allude to the royal patronage of the Church of Saint Martin of Mouros;
1342 – The charters of São Martinho de Mouros are drawn up, documenting aspects of its proto-municipalist and communitarian organization;
1455 – The patronage of the Church is transferred from the crown to the House of Marialva;
1513 – D. Manuel I grants a new charter to São Martinho de Mouros;
1531/1532 – Rui Fernandes, a chronicler and merchant, mentions São Martinho and the Bestança valley;
1530 (circa) – Painting of the boards depicting Saint Martin’s life;
1543 – The patronage of the Church is transferred to the University of Coimbra;
1638-1649 – News about multiple payments for one-off works in the Church and in the parish residence;
1758 – The Rector João da Cruz, parish priest of São Martinho, signs the Memoir that draws a social, economic and artistic portrait of the parish;
1941-1951 – Conduction of restoration works on the main façade and on the Church’s Protection Area, under the responsibility of the DGEMN – Direção Geral dos Edifícios e Monumentos Nacionais [General Directorate for Buildings and National Monuments];
1962-1968 – The chancel and sacristy of the Church of Saint Martin of Mouros are subject to a deep restoration intervention, under the responsibility of the DGEMN – Direção Geral dos Edifícios e Monumentos Nacionais [General Directorate for Buildings and National Monuments];
From the 90s to our days – The Church of Saint Martin of Mouros has been subject to several conservation interventions;
2010 – Integration of the Church of Saint Martin of Mouros in the Route of the Romanesque.
Architecture and Furniture
This Church comprises a single nave and a rectangular chancel; its façade is dominated by a tower-shaped volume that takes up the nave’s first quarter and, much like a façade-tower, gives this building a somewhat militarised and defensive look, doing justice to its reputation of fortress-Church.
In fact, this tower-shaped volume is the only one of its kind in the panorama of Portuguese Romanesque architecture: this volume takes up the entire width of the Church and, fulfilling the role of a west façade, it shapes a vertical structure that rises just above the nave’s level.
But it is in terms of its internal space that this volume shows an extremely original composition given the fact that it creates, in this part of the temple, a solution comprising three narrow naves, with parallel stonework vaults, one for each bay.
Three round arches rest on two high and robust square pillars, which have half-columns addorsed to three of their sides. These pillars, with the help of the external buttresses that end just below the cornice, are the ones that support the entire structure.
The central arch is much higher than the other ones, rising right up to the nave’s panelled ceiling.
Accompanying the level of the arches, the small central nave’s vault is higher than the lateral ones; it is also supported by a small transverse arch resting on corbels. Two longitudinal arches rest on columns whose carved capitals complete this ensemble.
In these capitals we can find vegetal and anthropomorphic themes, such as the representation of the seated man or of the man being swallowed by animals, a common theme on the Braga-Rates axis.
Beyond these arches, and leaving these small naves behind, the wide spatiality of the single nave appears in a contrasting way. So, its amplitude shows, in addition to its great height, that this was an exceptional place in terms of the Romanesque scale that was being used within our territory at the time.
Further ahead, the triumphal arch, which is pointed and surmounted by a framed oculus, comprises three archivolts resting on colonettes embedded on the wall, with capitals that are also decorated; these were carved using granite with a finer grain than the one that was used in the rest of the Church, which also allowed giving a more refined and defined treatment to the sculpted shapes.
Here, there are monsters swallowing naked figures that are hanging from their mouths by the legs, a subject with clear origins in Braga and that is also repeated in the main portal and in one of the high capitals from the nave’s first bay.
In the archivolts we find denticulate motifs. However, given the great extension of the triumphal arch’s span, when compared to the arches from the Church’s first bay, we may take the risk of considering it belongs to a later chronology.
Besides, the chancel’s great amplitude and the fact that it shows flat corbels on the outside are signs of an extension of the Romanesque modus aedificandi over time; perhaps, in this case, it already takes on a resistance-style nature.
This space of the Church has wide rectangular large windows that create a clear contrast with the crevices of medieval origin that still illuminate the nave’s interior in a diffuse way.
On the outside of this religious temple, the Romanesque spirit is very much alive. The presence of stones carved with initials along its wall faces, which were also reused in the bordering walls, remind us of the organization of building sites in this period.
On the main façade, a narrow crevice surmounts a portal formed by three sharp-edged pointed archivolts. It features three fluted shafts and capitals decorated with vegetal and animal themes.
The vegetal and anthropomorphic-themed sculpture, well attached to the frustum, suggests a later chronology than the one of the nave’s high capitals, which are more swollen, or even of the ones from the triumphal arch. The ensemble is surrounded by a chequered frieze and its impost extends itself along the entire façade.
Although currently we find a flat tympanum here, there is information that, in 1924, a large and thick granite stone was leaning against the façade. With an engraved cross in the centre, this stone worked as a tympanum that was surely part of this portal. Just above the portal, four corbels prove the prior existence of a porch-like structure.
On the upper part, a cornice rests on a Lombard band – a recurrent motif in several buildings from the Sousa river basin – whose little arches are supported by corbels with zoomorphic decorations shaped as bovine heads; some of them have a more finished look, others look more sketchy or worn away.
It is also above this western volume that we find the bell tower; it too is a compact building, in which two round arches were opened, on each side, to shelter the bells.
Finally, the western façade is propped by two buttresses, which are located on the corners and help to provide this entire heavy and massive structure with a better support.
Despite the fact that the Church’s body is not vaulted, the walls are reinforced with buttresses that, finished with wedges, end below the cornice level. This cornice, on the side elevations, is supported by flat modillions.
Regular guided visits