Built on the northern slope of the Montemuro mountain range’s massif, almost within sight of the Douro river, the monastic complex of Cárquere stands out, not just for its architectural and artistic ensemble, but by its deep connection to the early years of the Portuguese nation.
Considered at first, as being the place where the young prince Afonso Henriques, first king of Portugal, had been healed, due to an appeal by his preceptor Egas Moniz and through the intervention of the Virgin Mary, it was later turned into the pantheon of the powerful Resendes family until its dispersal, in the late 15th century.
The legends hatched by the Canons Regular who ruled this area, both in spiritual and temporal terms, until the 16th century were part of a consolidation and promotion strategy which was meant to distinguish an estate that was naturally supported by an extensive set of land and financial assets, within a vast region to the south of the Douro. And such wealth spoke louder when it was deemed necessary to reform the Monastery, which had been handed over to a few clergymen who were less conscious of their duties in the 15th century.
The arrival of the Jesuits, in the 16th century, brought with it a new strength to expand and consolidate the Monastery’s control in Cárquere.
This institute was the starting point for missionary and evangelizing activities that helped to set up the rather famous sanctuary of Our Lady of Lapa, to the southeast, on the limits of Nave plateaus.
The ownership of Cárquere was peaceful until the 18th century, when the persecution of the Jesuits by the Marquis of Pombal struck this small community.
This path, despite the vicissitudes of men and their greed, was somehow recorded in the spaces and artistic elements that define the existing ensemble.
Although the traces from the Romanesque period – the times of Egas Moniz and Afonso Henriques – aren’t very resounding, we should highlight the crevice of the Resendes family chapel and the tower, which is currently merged with the ensemble, but was once detached from the ecclesiastical building and its annexes.
Regarding the crevice on the front wall of the Resendes pantheon, we should highlight the fact that it is decorated on both sides. While a geometric language prevails inside, despite the mismatch felt in terms of the voussoirs’ composition, it is on one of the external archivolts that we find one of its most original elements, the so-called beak-heads – a motif imported from the Anglo-Saxon culture which features animals that are all facing forward and curving along the arch -, carved on each of the voussoirs, together with plenty of graphic elements.
The capitals feature the representation of birds, either with intertwined necks, or alone with open wings.
Regarding the tower, built on a granite outcrop, it has a defensive and manorial nature and may have been built on the same period as the monastic ensemble, which some authors date back to the last quarter of the 12th century or already to the 13th century.
The Monastery’s spatial distribution, both on the Church’s inside and outside, in the area of the existing cemetery (a former cloister), reveals its Romanesque spatiality. However, what we are still able to observe today, when we enter the Church, is the result of a Manueline appropriation of the primitive Romanesque construction, marked by previous Gothic interventions that are most expressive in the chevet, with its ribbed vault and mullioned window, which is only visible from the outside.
From the Manueline period we highlight the main portal and the one on the north side. The preserved mural paintings (found under the sliding collateral altarpieces) contain, on the Epistle side, a depiction of Saint Anthony and Saint Lucy and, on the opposite side, a group of fluttering angels.
The images of the Virgin of Cárquere and of the Virgin of Milk also belong to the medieval period. The first has been arousing the curiosity of the devotees due to its size and, especially, for being connected to the aforementioned legend.
The Modern Period, which coincided with the presence of the Jesuits, brought about the reform and especially the Baroque style, from which we may highlight the works carried out in the main, side and Saint Sebastian’s altars (which is currently displayed in the sacristy), all belonging to the national Baroque period.
Cárquere’s decline began in the mid-18th century. Deprived from its guardians and with its assets exposed to greed, it was reduced to the status of parish church. Over the 19th century, society’s growing secularization and laicism resulted in much of its religious heritage being sold or falling into decay.
The 20th century, due to the work of a few researchers and to the rising nationalism that sought in history and heritage the symbols to rehabilitate the nation and the new republican regime, led Cárquere to be seen with the proper attention deserved by one of the legendary mainstays of our nationality.
1125 – Friar Teodoro de Melo read (in 1732) an inscription found on the walls of the Residential Manor, which he deemed as being a reference to the foundation of the Monastery of Saint Mary of Cárquere;
12th century (2nd quarter) – Foundation of the Monastery of Saint Mary of Cárquere;
1146 – In his will, D. Egas Moniz is likely to have left several legacies to the Monastery of Saint Mary of Cárquere;
12th/13th century – Construction of the monastic ensemble of Saint Mary of Cárquere, including the tower;
1279 – The Bull of Pope Nicholas III (1277-1280) confirms the autonomy and prerogatives of the Monastery of Cárquere;
13th/14th century – Construction of the Church’s Gothic chancel;
1320 – The Monastery of Saint Mary of Cárquere was the only monastery held by the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine within the Diocese of Lamego;
15th century (1st half) – Possible construction of the Resendes pantheon;
16th century – Manueline transformation of the Church of Saint Mary of Cárquere;
1511 – The Monastery of Cárquere was handed over to the commendatory abbot Francisco Suzarte;
1541 – By order of King D. João III (1521-1557), Cárquere becomes part of the assets of the Society of Jesus;
1545-1560 – Mural painting campaign on the Church’s volume;
1554 – Official Inquiry to the Monastery and its canons;
1562 – Cárquere is definitely handed over to the Society of Jesus;
1578 – The Bull of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) dissolves Cárquere’s cloistered obligations and confirms the transfer of its rents from the prior and convent boards to the Jesuit College of Coimbra;
1600 – With the death of the vicar Baltasar Botelho, a dispute between the Jesuits and the bishop of Lamego breaks out over the ownership and presentation of the Church of Cárquere;
17th and 18th centuries – Design of Cárquere’s altarpiece structures;
1759 – With the expulsion of the Jesuits and the confiscation of their assets, the monastic complex of Cárquere falls under the administration of the University of Coimbra;
1775-1797 – The inspectors make several complaints and admonitions concerning the state of disrepair of the complex of Cárquere and its liturgical furnishings;
1797 – Joaquim José, from Enxertado, and José Pinto de Figueiredo, from Paços, were hired to carry out thorough works in the ecclesiastical building’s structure and annexes;
1798 – Upon a request by the Royal Council of the University, the parish priest of Cárquere prepared a comprehensive inventory of the furniture, implements and vestments, as well as of the incomes, expenses and a few statistical elements regarding the parish;
18th century (2nd half) – Walling up of the door that connected the priests’ house with the Church’s volume;
1806 – Repair works in the cloister, where a wall had collapsed in the previous year;
1829-1832 – Several masonry works were carried out in Cárquere’s Church, sacristy and residence;
1950-2012 – The remaining ensemble of the Monastery of Cárquere has been subject to several conservation interventions;
2010 – Integration of the Monastery of Saint Mary of Cárquere in the Route of the Romanesque.
Architecture and Furniture
The monastic ensemble of Cárquere shows the passage of several construction periods, which explains the scarcity of visible Romanesque traces. Despite the fact that it underwent many transformations according to the aesthetics and tastes of different periods, there is still a topography with a Romanesque flavour that prevails mostly in the spatial organization of the monastic ensemble.
The fact that the original cloister was placed on the left side of the Church, that is, to the north, justifies the positioning of the Resendes pantheon, the lords of the land, as an independent chapel.
On the opposite side, i.e., on the south side, we find the structures of what has been called as the “conventinho” [little convent], which contributes to emphasize the multiple meanings of the rich spatial articulation of this built ensemble.
Comprising two floors, which can be accessed through a straight-lintel door found on the ground floor, this structure is difficult to date, given the vernacular nature of its masonry work. The existence of multiple scars shows that it was subject to several transformations.
However, the quadrangular and rectangular corbels place its chronology sometime within the Middle Ages, though they do not allow us to establish a specific chronology; therefore, we believe that this structure was built after the construction of the Romanesque Church.
This volume is connected by an arch to that which has come to be known as the custodian’s house. However, we should notice the persistence of scars in its upper register, suggesting an extension of what used to be the “conventinho” [little convent] to the south or, alternatively, the existence of a passageway that allowed a connection between the monastic structure and the custodian’s house.
The entire ensemble is topped, on its southeast corner, by the robust crenelated tower that was built on a granite outcrop, with a clear Romanesque layout. This structure, with a defensive and manorial nature, may have been built on the same period of the monastic ensemble, which some authors date back to the last quarter of the 12th century or already to the 13th century.
Returning to the Church, the chevet may have been built in the turning of the 13th to the 14th century, still within the Gothic style, as evidenced by the mullioned window with a small three-lobed oculus on the front wall, which is only visible from the outside, because inside it is hidden by the main altarpiece.
The structure chosen for the vault also refers us to the Gothic aesthetics, with ribs resting on columns, placed on the corners and closed by a finial. We should also notice the wide opening that, composed of a broken arch dotted by pearls, allows the access between the chancel and the existing sacristy.
On the outside, the corbels suggest the same chronology: with a rectangular shape and predominant geometrical ornaments, some are dotted with pearls. However, interestingly enough, on the north side we identify a corbel in which there is a carved human figure resembling a bearded man sitting with his legs crossed. Due to the fact that it has a more quadrangular shape than the others, this corbel cannot be a reuse of a piece from the Romanesque construction.
The most likely situation is that this chevet replaced a previous Romanesque one. Only a section remains from this period; it is found on the existing nave, in the wall face on the Epistle side, as suggested by the three walled-up crevices that are clearly visible from the inside.
Therefore, what we may conclude is that there was a clear reuse of the Romanesque construction during the Manueline transformation of the nave’s volume. The mason’s initials on the Church’s south wall certify its chronology as a Romanesque building, besides confirming the good quality of its construction.
However, in the Church, and besides the wall on the Epistle side, there are still some prevailing traces, or reminiscences, from the Romanesque Period. We refer ourselves to the oculus that, on the main façade, surmounts the Manueline portal. Moreover, confirming a usual feature of most Romanesque buildings, we find a Romanesque crevice over the triumphal arch, whose imposts show a chequered motif. The archivolt is embedded in the thickness of the wall itself.
Aesthetically, the triumphal arch is clearly Gothic, not only due to the large diameter of its span, but also due to the fact that its three archivolts – which are still round – show carved capitals with a refined language, in which floral and phytomorphic motifs prevail.
However, it is on the tomb chapel of the Resendes that we find this ensemble’s most significant Romanesque sections. Featuring a rectangular plan and opening to the space where once stood the cloister, the funeral chapel of the Resendes keeps four granite chests inside, whose monolithic lids are shaped as gabled roofs.
Being about two meters long each, the ones placed on the left side of the chapel are framed by an arcosolium.
We highlight the crevice found on the front wall. Composed of two round archivolts, this crevice is ornamented, both on the inside and the outside. On the inside, a geometric language prevails, with carvings in relief on both archivolts; the inner archivolt has a zigzag motif, while on the outer one we identify a chained rope-shaped motif.
However, if we look at it carefully, we can see that the voussoirs in this archivolt are not fully connected in terms of the motifs they depict, which leads us to believe that, for some reason, this crevice may have been reused, belonging to a different area of the building.
That episode may make sense if we take into account the chronology assigned to the tomb chests kept in the pantheon and the fact that it is believed that the chapel may have already been built in the 15th century by Vasco Martins de Resende, according to the information contained in his will from 1433.
On the outside, the geometric-flavoured motifs of the crevice’s outer archivolt stand out, while on each of the inner archivolt’s voussoirs the highlight is put on the animals that are all facing forward and curving along the arch, which are not too modelled and show plenty of graphic elements.
We stand before the so-called beak-heads, imported from the Anglo-Saxon culture and that, according to Manuel Real, became very popular among us as a result of the Benedictine action that spread out from The Church of Saint Peter of Rates (Póvoa de Varzim), showing an obvious familiarity with the figures depicted on the triumphal arch of Tarouquela (Cinfães), on the portal of the tower of Travanca (Amarante) and on a single voussoir from the cloister of Paço de Sousa (Penafiel).
These archivolts rest on sculpted capitals where, on one side, we find birds with their necks contorted and, on the other side, a bird with open wings whose head meets the capital’s corner.
Under this crevice there is a section of a frieze in which intertwined motifs stand out. The quality of this ensemble demonstrates the magnitude and artistic talent that the Romanesque Church of this Monastery must have had.
Regular guided visits