The Convento do Carmo in Lisbon, Portugal

with 16 Comments

Lisbon. 9 am. The air is crisp and clear. We walk down the Rua da Oliveira ao Carmo, and there it is:

the ruins of the Convento do Carmo.

 

With naked arches and piers pointing loose to the sky, this medieval building looks like scattered ribs. The vaulted roofs of the nave were completely destroyed by the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. It is believed to have collapsed upon its worshippers, since it was All Saints’ Day when the earthquake struck.

 

We wander down the open aisle, admiring shattered pillars, engraved columns, tombstones and monastic statuary of this medieval gothic church. I am not prepared for what happens next: we enter the archaeological museum, located in the main chapel. I pass a couple of recumbent statues, and suddenly stop in my tracks, facing a 14th-century tombstone.

 

A sculptured figure, entirely covered in feathers, with 6 wings, is spreading its arms and flying away. The dream to fly, to escape our own earthly dimension, our reality, is one of human’s oldest fantasies. But how this theme is depicted here is unlike anything I have ever seen in funeral sculpture. There is nothing gory about it. The Seraphic figure is smiling. It is in good company too, surrounded by stars and angels.

 

Tomb of King Don Fernando I, Convento do Carmo, Lisbon, Portugal © Travelwithmk.com
Tomb of King Don Fernando I, Convento do Carmo, Lisbon, Portugal © Travelwithmk.com

 

I circle around the whole monument, literally gaping at the complex iconography. I need to know what this piece of art is all about. A tiny notice reveals that this is the tomb of King D. Fernando I (1345-1383), hence leaving me with more questions than answers.

 

Up close, the high-relief details are too many to narrate. I could write a bible about it. The side panels feature shields bearing different coat of arms, one of which shows a feathered wing holding a sword. Deeply carved, above the shields, appear various busts of religious and secular figures. Supporting the shields are “green men”: hybrid figures, always with a vegetal element, for example leaves that sprout from their ears. Along the “voids” of the ark: one can recognize creatures from the underworld: a two-headed dragon, two bird-like animals with intertwined heads facing each other, a winged centaur with a warrior shield, and many stunning anthropomorphic figures.

 

Tomb of King Don Fernando I, Convento do Carmo, Lisbon, Portugal © Travelwithmk.com
Tomb of King Don Fernando I, Convento do Carmo, Lisbon, Portugal © Travelwithmk.com

 

That’s when I detect the mysterious prisoner, probably an alchemist or a physician, possibly a Jew (pointy hat), performing his obscure science in his secret chamber. He might be holding the Philosopher’s Stone. If you look closely, you see that the pointy hat is actually the sole piece of clothing he’s wearing. So he’s almost naked, barefoot, and imprisoned! A rope is tied to his neck. And the rope end is tied to a heavy counterweight. Behind the prisoner, the sculptor chiseled a whole laboratory with jars, vases and hourglasses. These are all alchemist symbols, highlighting our frail and short existence on earth and mankind’s oldest dream: to live forever.

 

But what does the imprisoned alchemist or medic have to do with D. Fernando? Back in the apartment we are renting in Lisbon, I read about the king’s death. Surprise: he was poisoned! Is he denouncing his murderer on his tombstone? Or condemning ill practice of the obscure arts?

 

King D. Fernando I’s tombstone is a promising writing material. Maybe because there is a story lurking behind those carvings. Maybe… What I do know is that I’ve completely fallen in love with the artwork. I like it so much that even the old convent’s library – showcased in the room next to the tombstone’s – couldn’t take my thoughts off it. Nor the three mummies, which Mei fell in love with: one battered Egyptian mummy, and two 16th-century Peruvian mummies, preciously kept behind glass cases.

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Convento do Carmo, Lisbon, Portugal © Travelwithmk.com

 

Follow Kerstin:

Traveler - Storyteller

Kerstin is a 30-something French teacher, born and raised in a tiny Luxembourgish village, but who used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens and San Francisco with her wife Mei. Fluent in 5 languages, she's above all a huge book enthusiast, a fervent writer and storyteller, and could never refuse a good old single malt whiskey. Oh, and she also loves coffee and chocolate (not sure in which order though).

16 Responses

  1. quirkywanderer
    | Reply

    I love ruins. There is something so intriguing about them. Mysterious and full of hidden stories. Loved the post! You have captured the beauty of tombstone so well! I felt I walked with you throughout 🙂

  2. Suruchi Mittal
    | Reply

    The comparison of open arches with scattered ribs is really interesting. So much of history behind the tombstone; i would love exploring every bit of it. And Your post has actually made me so much curious. Thanks for amazing story and sharing this.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re welcome Suruchi! I’m really glad that my post has made you want to know more about this tombstone. 😉

  3. authenticfoodquest
    | Reply

    Very well written… full of intrigue. I’m now curious to learn more about King Fernando. So much history and detail in that tombstone. Very cool. I’ll be visiting Lisbon later this year and will now add this to my list of things to see. Thanks for the heads up.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks a lot girls! If you need tips and infos about Lisbon, feel free to contact us! 🙂

  4. Oh wow this is so cool, what a ton of detail that I probably would have walked straight past lol

  5. SherianneKay
    | Reply

    So interesting that the story is depicted on the tomb, really makes you ponder the meaning of every detail

  6. Kim-Ling
    | Reply

    I absolutely love your descriptive language (especially comparing the arches and open detail like scattered ribs)! We visited Lisbon and loved it, but ran out of time to visit here, but you’ve just convinced me that we need to go back and make visiting the Convento de Carmo a priority! I want to see and study the detailed tombs for myself.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Kim-Ling! I’m thrilled that my post inspired you to find out more about the Convento do Carmo and the tomb for yourself. You’ll see that the tomstone has more details and secrets than I could ever describe. 🙂

  7. hcura
    | Reply

    Slightly ashamed that as a Portuguese who has travel quite a lot and knows Lisbon very well, this is probably the only place I haven’t been in the capital. Thank you for reminding I need to visit this as soon as possible.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Lisbon has so many hidden gems to explore. I’m sure you keep finding new places every day! 🙂

  8. Karla
    | Reply

    I’ve been to Lisbon, I love that city. You are quite the story teller. This was such a good story teller. There’s so much history with just one place. I am amazed.

  9. Una-Minh
    | Reply

    Love your storytelling style! (Which is actually rare enough to find in blogs these days!) Seems like the tomb of King D. Fernando really made quite the impression on you 😉 I can relate! So much rich history in one place, it’s no wonder that your curiousity goes into overdrive!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      I’m really glad that you like my storytelling style. Thanks a lot for your comment, Uni-Minh! 🙂

  10. I’ve been to Lisbon, it’s such an interesting and vibrant city. The architecture of churches and cathedrals are really interesting and what an interesting story behind the tombstone!

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