Built in the 13th century, the Church of Saint Mary of Gondar, once the seat of a small female monastic complex, is located half-way up the slope, in the valley of the river Ovelha.
Its foundation is associated with the house of the Gondars, which had in its possession a significant geographical and social area in the surrounding region. This family made of this Marian abbey the host site of its daughters and the family pantheon.
It is important to mention that such foundations are mainly the outcome of matters of mercy and political nature, as well as of the will and intervention of certain individuals and families in the organization of their territorial power.
If the Church, as an institution, managed to gradually take over these structures and the entire economic and social apparatus arising from them, it is certain that, in the very beginning, these were the centre of a private heritage site.
Although this condition of private church is inherent to the foundation of most mother churches in the region, very few enclose the importance and the significance of the lineage and the name associated with the Christianization and control of local power like Gondar. For several centuries, this family’s surname was synonym of domain and power over this region, thus influencing the religious experience of this monastic house.
Since the 13th century, when the “Inquirições” [administrative enquiries] refer the Knights of Gundar as patrons of the Benedictine monastery, until the Abbey with the presentation of the Mitra and Commendation of the Order of Christ in the 17th century, the changes reflect the not always steady balance between spiritual and temporal power. Of the abbesses who lived in this monastery, Teresa Lourenço stands out in the 12th century, Ouroana in the 13th century and Inês Borges in the 15th century, which would have been the last nun.
In 1455, Bishop D. Fernando da Guerra (episc. 1416-1418), intending to give expression to a rehabilitation of the spaces and moralization of decaying churches and monasteries, extinguished it and handed it to the secular power.
Its first parish priest, Pedro Afonso, wanting perhaps to give the Church a new devotional expression, offers, in 1470, a sculpture of the Virgin breastfeeding Her Child while seating, image which became a very important element of devotion to the Gondar community and is now in the new parish church.
In the late 19th century, with the reorganization of the boundaries of the dioceses of Braga and Porto, Gondar was transferred from the former to the latter, being currently part of the vicariate of Amarante.
1202, July – King Sancho donates the tenths of Carvalho de Rei, Pedrinha, Pena Redonda and Santa Maria de Gestaçô to the Monastery of Gondar and the abbess D. Ouroana;
1202 – King Sancho donates to the Monastery of Gondar the patronage of the Church of Saint Peter of Lomba and the Church of Saint Mary of Castelo;
1258 – In the “Inquirições” [administrative enquiries] of King Afonso III, the Knights of Gondar are stated as lords of the Monastery;
1452, July 29th – D. Inês Borges is vested as the last abbess of Gondar;
1455, April 13th – By command of Archbishop D. Fernando Guerra, the Church of Gondar becomes secular;
1470 – Clergyman Pedro Afonso offers a sculpture of the Virgin to the Church of Gondar;
1548 – The Chart of the Commendation of Gondar is written;
1726 – Francisco Craesbeeck marks the Curch of Gondar as the rectory of the Commendation of Christ, with sacrarium, being, then, the rector Father Domingos Ferreira da Silva;
1758 – The Church of Gondar featured three altars, the major and the collateral, these devoted to the Holy Name of Jesus and Saint Sebastian;
1948 – According to Mário Barroca, this year marked the first appearance of the Seating Virgin, called Saint Mary of Gondar; this would be the work of Alfredo Guimarães;
1953 – Armando de Mattos draws people’s attention, in an article published in the magazine Douro Litoral, to the condition of the Church of Gondar and its murals;
1978 – The Church of Gondar is listed as Building of Public Interest;
1979 – António Cardoso publishes a monograph on the Church of Gondar;
1980-1988 – Several works are carried out in the structure that rehabilitate the integrity of the building which, nevertheless, is replaced by the new church of Gondar;
2010 – Integration of the Church of Saint Mary of Gondar in the Route of the Romanesque.
Architecture and Furniture
Surely built in the 13th century, if not in the following century, the Church of Gondar features in its edification an originally monastic nature: the corbels that punctuate the external walls attest to the existence of structures adjacent to the Church, on both sides.
Given the scale of the Church that we know today, it is certain that the monastic complex would be of humble size. We are, therefore, before a Church composed of a single nave and rectangular chancel. The Romanesque design was almost entirely preserved, despite the transformations it underwent throughout the Modern Era.
Canonically oriented (chevet to the east and front to the west), the main façade is marked by decorative sobriety. The portal features the late nature of the construction, i.e., it has no columns, the archivolts stand on the walls and the tympanum is smooth. The only decorated element of this portal is precisely the external archivolt where the chequered motif may be appreciated.
The portal is topped by a small oculus with a grid consisting of five circles placed according to the arms of a cross. Both elements show a late chronology, closer to that of the Gothic rather than the Romanesque, so we must understand this Church within those buildings that have been identified by “românico de resistência” [resistance Romanesque], rural Gothic or even of proto-Gothic.
The structure of the lateral portals, identical to each other, confirms this chronology. In both façades, in addition to the two narrow crevices that cut the vestments, thus allowing the interior lighting of the holy ground, one can still see the modillions, which are still fairly well preserved, supporting a two-volume cornice. The modillions, mainly with a quadrangular profile, are smooth or bear simple decoration, of which rolls stand out and the spheres multiply.
Over the endpoint of the south façade, along the western façade, the belfry follows the model of Romanesque bell towers: two perfectly round arches house the bells. As decorative elements, it only bears the imposts composed of a single log, which extend around the entire structure and terminal spires which, much like a pyramid, finish off the building.
On the left of those entering the nave through the main entrance, there’s the font whose granite bowl is supported by a base, both polygonal. Several granite pieces are deposited here: fragments of tombstones, a holy water font, with a budded bowl, perhaps already of the Baroque era. On the Epistle side, next to the portal, a round arch niche tears up the vestment, which should accommodate an altarpiece.
Despite knowing that there were within this space several altarpieces and mural painting sets during the Early Modern Period, the truth is that, today, granite imposes itself, both in vestments and floor.
This is due to the fact that this Church was free from worship after the building of the new parish church, in the early 20th century, which led to its gradual abandonment, merely haltered by a deep restoration intervention in the second half of the 80s, which sought to return the Church to its architectural integrity and legibility, as a monuments and sacred space.
Of the altarpieces, we are only familiar with the main altarpiece that, nowadays, can be found in the new parish church. This is an altar-like structure framed within the so-called national style of Portuguese gilded wood (late 17th century / 1st quarter of the 18th century).
Of the murals, only the one decorating the intradorsum of the niche on the chancel’s back wall survived. Here we may also observe the traces of paintings of the grotesque involving the casings.
The triumphal arch may have been the result of the same 18th century campaign, taking into account its formal characteristics, as well as the rectangular window with iron grating, opened on the south façade of the chevet.
The pulpit, of which only the access stairs and the classicizing console supporting its basis remain, would be further supplemented with a wooden guard.
Regular guided visits