In my travels throughout Spain the last few years, I have been intrigued by the many sites associated with the Knights Templar, with their peculiar architecture and varied locations. Consequently, my curiosity regarding this half-religious, half-military order has grown.
So while traveling through Portugal, I decided a visit to their extraordinary headquarters — the Convento da Ordam de Cristo (Convent of the Order of Christ) — would certainly be in order to try and shed some light on their mystique.
Choosing the small city of Tomar, about two hours north of Lisbon, the Knights Templar established their Portuguese religious headquarters and military stronghold in 1162. Here, the fortress-cum-monastery sits imposingly, perched above the town, impressing and intimidating those in the old city below.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Knights Templar were one of the first of 12 religious military orders of knighthood that came into being between 1100 and 1300. Founded around the year 1119, in the wake of the First Crusade, the Knights’ objective was to protect and guide pilgrims in the Holy Land. The order accrued wealth and influence — and enemies.
After Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 1187 and Christians were routed from the Holy Land in the late 13th century, the Knights turned into a mercenary force. They also became bankers. Their great wealth was too much of a temptation for Philip IV of France, whose machinations eventually led to the order’s downfall. Pope Clement V suppressed the order in 1314.
Soon after, Portuguese King Denis cleverly replaced the Knights in his country with the Order of Christ, which inherited the Templar’s assets in Portugal.
The Architectural Highlights
The mighty Convento de Cristo is a vast complex, including a “charola” (round church), cloisters, dormitories and gardens. It embraces several styles of Portuguese architecture from the 12th to the 17th centuries and showcases the finest examples of the exquisite Manueline design.
My visit began with a walk through the fortress walls and into the garden. As I approached the charola, I admired its round construction, supported with buttresses rising up to a battlemented terrace, giving it a castle-like appearance from the outside. Like most circular churches, it was modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
There’s no mistaking the purpose of the charola from the inside, however. A 12th-century, 16-sided, fresco-covered rotunda contains a centerpiece two-story octagonal prism, which holds the high altar, complemented by wooden statues of the prophets and painted scenes from the life of Christ. This is the heart of the whole complex, and it was here, I imagine, that the knights developed their religious convictions.
An archway connects the charola to the nave, built in the early 16th century on two levels and split into the choir and vestry. The crowning highlight is the sculptural adornment on the west facade in the Manueline style — two corner buttresses and the beautifully ornamented chapter window. Manueline art suggests the Age of Discovery, with maritime motifs such as sailors, buoys, sails, coral, seaweed and ropes.
From the church, I stepped out into the main cloister, a masterpiece of Renaissance neoclassicism and, without a doubt, the most spectacular of the cloisters. Inspired by Italian architecture, it has two stories, displaying Greek columns and gentle arches. This cloister, just one of seven others in the complex, was built to connect the church to the monk’s dormitories.
It was João III, in the mid-16th century, who put the convento in Convento de Cristo, with the addition of monk’s cells, dormitories, kitchens, refectory, offices and four new cloisters. A strict monastic life would be the standard following this point. The site would remain a monastic community until it was forced to terminate in 1834.
The convent then fell into private hands, and was even used as a military barracks, until it was purchased by the state in 1936. It was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1982, after major restoration work was completed.
The Convento de Cristo entwines the most outstanding religious, military and imperial features of Portuguese history, and what remains today illustrates the pinnacle of wealth, prestige and power that the Knights Templar once held. A visit to Tomar allowed me a peek into their curious and enigmatic history.
Stephen Bugno writes from
Planning Your Visit:
The Convento da Ordam de Cristo is but one of several fine ecclesiastical structures in Tomar. There is also the Gothic Church of São João Baptista, on Praça da República, the town’s main square. Pass through the Manueline door of the 15th century church and you will find a “Last Supper” by Gregório Lopes, one of the finest of Portugal’s 16th-century artists.
On the east side of the Nabão river is the 13th-century Church of Santa Maria do Olival. Once the mother church for mariners in the Age of Discovery, it houses the graves of Templar masters.
Tomar is easily accessible from Lisbon or Porto by car or train. Hours: daily, June-Sept. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Oct-May 9 a.m.-5 p.m. From the center of Tomar, it’s a 15-minute walk uphill to the site.