Monastery of Saint Mary of Vila Boa do Bispo – Marco de Canaveses

Mentioned in 11th and 12th century documents as the Monastery of Saint Mary of Vila Boa, this convent was already associated with the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine in the mid-12th century.

According to tradition, the monastic house was founded between 990 and 1022 by D. Sisnando, the bishop of Porto (between 1049 and 1085) and brother of D. Monio Viegas, on the site where a legendary battle between Christians and Muslims had taken place, as stated in the Chronicle of the Augustinian Canons.

Ever since its foundation, this Monastery can be associated with the lineage of the Gascos de Ribadouro, a noble family that achieved a great influence at the time. Lords of a large number of monasteries strategically positioned along the tributaries of the river Douro, on both banks and along the routes of the Reconquest, these noblemen controlled a wide geographical area to the north and south of this river.

We should mention the fact that the territory in question featured conditions which favoured monastic life: being uneven, it was avoided by travellers and had recently been ploughed and repopulated with inhabitants that, in the following centuries, proved to be well rooted.

For some time, we could identify members of the Gascos family, direct descendants of their lineage, who were in possession of assets in Vila Boa do Bispo or within the current parish territory.

Its importance was such that it even received the charter of “couto” [place with privileges] from King D. Afonso Henriques in 1141 and was granted special privileges by the pontiffs of the time: the priors of the Monastery were allowed to use a mitre (Papal Brief of Lucius II, 1144) and received the distinction which allowed them to use a crosier (Bull of Anastasius IV, 1153).

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Vila Boa do Bispo was one of the richest and most powerful Monasteries in the region. In the 16th century it was passed onto the management of the Commanders and, in the following century, the Chronicles highly appraised the importance of the legend underlying the foundation of this monastic house.

It is, therefore, within this context that the Romanesque Church was given a new look. As indicated by the various cartouches that are strategically placed inside the building, the main changes occurred between 1599 and 1686.

The chancel has a Baroque atmosphere. The cobalt-blue-on-white tile lining of the side walls combines the composition of an individual figure, in the upper part, with an elaborate composition of floral motifs in large vases, flanked by hybrid female figures, bordered by contorted leaves. The main altarpiece was designed according to the National Baroque taste.

Trompe-l’oeil painting prevails in the nave, both with the use of marbled elements (in the sacristy door, the pulpit and the arch that supports the choir) and scenic decorations.

In the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, there are plenty of fake architectural elements and the common floral ornamentation with grotesque elements is much to the Baroque celebration taste.

The National-style collateral altarpieces evoke the Holy Christ and the Virgin of the Rosary and the side altarpiece, on the left side of the nave, evokes the Virgin of the Assumption.

An extravagant balcony with balustrade and fake marbled elements, on the left side of the nave, features a base decorated with chinoiserie. It is supported by an atlas standing on a half-shell.

We highlight the remaining tomb art collection, both inside and outside the Church, which suggests the existence of burials throughout the 13th and 14th centuries.

History

990-1022 – According to tradition, the Monastery of Vila Boa do Bispo was founded by D. Sisnando, the brother of Monio Viegas;

1012 – First reference to the Monasterio S. Mariae Villaebonae;

1022 – Date included in the funerary inscription of D. Monio Viegas and of two of his sons, D. Egas Moniz and D. Gomes Moniz, engraved in a sarcophagus lid found in the cloister of the Monastery of Vila Boa do Bispo;

1120 – Reference to the Monasterium… Villa Noua [sic] episcopi;

1141, February 12th – The Monastery of Vila Boa do Bispo – or, more specifically, the prior D. Egas, his brother D. Monio and his monks -, received the charter of “couto” [place with privileges] granted by King D. Afonso Henriques;

1142 – The bishop of Porto, D. Pedro Rabaldis (1138-1145) visits the chapel where D. Sisnando was buried; later, he would have his tomb transferred to the Monastery of Vila Boa [do Bispo];

1143 – There are already reports of the presence of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine in Vila Boa do Bispo;

1144 – In the Papal Brief of Pope Lucius II (1144-1145), the priors of the Monastery were allowed to use a mitre;

1153 – In the Bull of Pope Anastasius IV (1153-1154), the priors were also distinguished with the permit to use a crosier;

12th-13th centuries – Chronology of the remaining Romanesque elements of Vila Boa do Bispo;

1297 – Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) made an explicit confirmation of the Rule of Saint Augustine in the Monastery of Vila Boa do Bispo;

13th Century – The Monastery of Vila Boa do Bispo held many farmhouses and patronages in several parishes of the region;

14th century – Design of the tomb of D. Salvado Pires;

1320 – The Monastery of Vila Boa do Bispo pays a tax of 1500 Portuguese libras;

1348, November 25th – Inscription engraved on the tomb of D. Nicolau Martins, the Monastery’s prior;

1362 – After this date, the tombs of D. Júrio Geraldes and D. Nicolau Martins were commissioned by the former to the same workshop;

1381, January 30th – Funeral inscription engraved in the lateral section of the lid of the tomb of D. Júrio Geraldes, Chief Magistrate of King D. Fernando (1387-1383) for the region of Entre-Douro-e-Minho;

1475 – The presentation of commendatory abbots in Vila Boa do Bispo begins;

1593 – The Monastery of Vila Boa do Bispo is integrated in the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Coimbra;

1599-1686 – Earliest and latest dates of the various cartouches placed inside the building, which offer evidence of the great transformation it underwent during the Modern Period;

1605 – Renovation of the Monastery of Vila Boa do Bispo;

17th century (2nd half) – Transformation of the Romanesque building of Vila Boa do Bispo;

1650-60 – Tiling of the baptistery;

1686 – Possible construction of the sacristy, purposely opening an access door to the chancel, duly identified over the jamb;

18th century (1st half) – Chronology of the Baroque intervention in the Church’s interior, based on existing stylistic elements;

1727 – Date engraved in the sacristy washbasin;

1740 – Tiling of the chancel;

1758 – According to the information provided by the “Memórias Paroquiais” [Parish Memorandum], the building of Vila Boa do Bispo would have already had an identical look to the one we currently see;

1882-1888 – Disassembling and reconstruction of the tower;

1886 November 16th – Project for an interior staircase surrounding the walls of the tower;

2010 – Integration of the Monastery of Saint Mary of Vila Boa do Bispo in the Route of the Romanesque.

Architecture and Furniture

The Church of the Monastery of Vila Boa do Bispo features a longitudinal plan, with a single nave, a deep chancel and an adjacent sacristy to the north. It has an adjacent quadrangular bell tower to the south.

The most original elements from the Romanesque period can be found on the Church’s façade. Although they’re incomplete, the two blind arcades that flank the main portal – which was totally transformed during the Modern Period – feature two archivolts with quadrupeds and birds carved on the perimeter of the voussoirs; their surface was dug to reveal the shapes of the animal bodies, leaving a continuous edge over the corner

So, on both sides of the voussoirs, we find symmetrical and antithetical compositions with the animals joining their heads over the arcade’s corner. On the inner arcade, the animals seem to be outraged, standing against a foliage background.

It is indeed curious that the Romanesque elements that remain in the Church’s body lead us to a later chronology than the one suggested by the ones in the main façade.

We refer ourselves to the corbels that are still preserved under the cornice, in the chancel, but on the side that is hidden by the remaining monastic structures; these corbels have a quadrangular profile, and one of them shows a face taking up all its available space.

On the south side façade, the narrow crevices that rip the granite wall face – which was recently uncovered – suggest a medievality that cannot be dissociated from this Church of Vila Boa do Bispo.

Inside, they show a dihedral torus that works as a decorative element, which together with the remains of broken arches that are partially exposed inside the Church (for example, over the access door to the sacristy), confirms the thesis that the 17th century “masked” the building’s Romanesque nature.

In addition, we should also consider the possibility that its interior may have been decorated with blind arcades, which would reinforce the prominent position that this building had within the context of Portuguese Romanesque architecture.

But one of the most curious Romanesque traces is found on the chevet’s south side façade. Based on its visible elements, we can state that the primitive chancel would have been square with a stone vault (as the buttresses reveal) and it would have also been externally decorated with blind arcades.

The fragments of a chequered frieze also point us to a Romanesque chronology. However, the most significant element is a capital featuring the mermaid theme, which we also find depicted in a capital on the north side portal of the Monastery of Travanca (Amarante). Among all mystical entities, the fish-tailed mermaid was one of the most depicted themes in our Romanesque style.

Regular guided visits

By appointment.

Building

Monastery of Saint Mary of Vila Boa do Bispo
Avenida do Mosteiro, Vila Boa do Bispo
Marco de Canaveses
Portugal

Opening times

Celebration: Sunday – 11 am.