Baroque Splendour in Northern Portugal

As you can see a fair few of us have been on holiday lately – me too. I was lucky enough to have a great trip to northern Portugal during the first couple of weeks of August. I am certain I have mentioned this earlier, but despite having been raised in the Iberian peninsula, my knowledge of Portugal is close to nothing, which is truly upsetting. So this was a very educational trip for me. One of the areas that I found particularly surprised by was the sheer amount of baroque buildings there seem to be in the area where we were staying – roaming between Braga and Porto. As you know, I am sold when art and architecture is involved in the equation so that will be the topic for today’s update.

This extravagant and pompous art style followed similar patterns throughout Europe, partially in connection with the rise of absolute powers in the Continent. However, the Baroque came late to Portugal, only starting to feel its vibe in the 1600s. The country was actually in crisis following the death of Phillip II of Spain – the reign of Phillip III marked the decline of Spanish power, and it most certainly had the same effect for Portugal. By this stage, the Portuguese nobility were retiring to the countryside, abandoning the cities, and a great portion of the Portuguese money coming from Brazil was use for Spanish exploits in the Netherlands, therefore milking both Spain and Portugal to misery by pursuing a war which would not bring any political or social joy to either country. Thus, Portugal faces austerity. As an effect, we see the birth of the Chão style, which was proper of a period with no money to invest in the arts, therefore rather the opposite from the baroque tendencies in the rest of Europe. The Jesuits however contributed to the development of the Chão movement, which was better tuned to their religious as it was less ostentatious and in a sense closer to the laymen – simple buildings, with close to none ornaments inside. Most of these buildings are rather classical in their functional geometric designs, sometimes so bulky that you could easily mistake them with strongholds. So in this way Portugal develops a type of architecture relatively easy and cheap to build and spread across the country, whilst making it practical, and leaving it open to further improvements. In fact, what ends up bringing forward the true Portuguese baroque is not so much the splendour of the actual buildings, but the decorations that are incorporated later. They relied heavily on what is called “talha dourada”: wood carvings which are later on coated in gold (or golden laminates and paints which was more affordable and produced the same effect). Luckily for Portugal, by the 17th century they were already the masters of an art form that compares to nothing else in Europe: azulejo – the decorated tiles. With a combination of these two main artistic productions, many  buildings were enhanced and given the air of grandeur proper of continental baroque. It is not however until the reign of João V already in the 18th century that baroque takes in Portugal a recognizable shape for other Europeans. João brought back stability to his kingdom, and this allowed for the country to flourish again. Nevertheless, even then, the grandeur was incorporated cautiously into the architectural pieces. Luckily for us, it was the north of the country – the area between Braga and Porto – where most of the money was concentrated. Therefore, this is the reason why baroque architecture is so prominent there. And here is where I give you a tour of some of the best examples of Portuguese baroque I found during my trip:

Igreja dos Congregados

Igreja dos Congregados

This church is right in the middle of Braga’s city center and it really stands out. You cannot really perceive this from my picture but the building suddenly appears on the side of the promenade that departs from the main square – Arcada – completely standing out from the 3 story town houses by each side and open plan designed for pedestrian walking.

This is the Arcada square. Its name comes from the many arches that compose the face of the building. You can see the baroque influences in here too, but it is slightly more simplistic and elegant that some other archways found elsewhere during this period,

This is the church as seen from the promenade. As you can see it really stands out.

André Soares started the construction of the building in the 17th century. He was, alongside Carlos Amarante, the main baroque architect of Braga. Although the basilica was consecrated in 1717, it was missing the two towers and sculpture work on the facade. This task was not completed until 1964! The work was completed by the artist Manuel da Silva Nogueira. Currently, the building holds the music depart for the Universidade do Minho.

Palácio do Raio

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This is also the work of Soares. Built between 1754 and 1755, it is considered one of the greatest achievements of this architect due to the asymmetrical contrasts produced by the windows and balconies. Many believe Soares was one of the pioneers of Portuguese Rococo as exemplified by the work on this building. Yet, it seems that the characteristic blue tiles one the facade were actually an amendment commissioned by the second owner of the building Miguel José Raio, Viscount of São Lázaro (1867).

Igreja de Santa Cruz

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This is another example of 17th century Baroque style in Braga. Unfortunately it was one of those buildings that it was refurbished at many stages during and after the Baroque – as many in this area of Portugal from what I understood from a very kind gallery guide who spoke with us at São Pedro de Rates, another sour victim of this mistreatment. It seems that there were some serious issues with material decay inside the building and by the early 18th century, they architects were forced to demolish most of the church and rebuild it to its current shape. The works were completed by 1739. But the reason why this church is significant, is for its abundance of talha dourada of high quality decorating its interior.

Bom Jesus do Monte

As the name indicates, this sanctuary is on the top of one of the mounts in the outskirts of Braga, in Tenões. Apart from being an important pilgrimage, the site is a tourist attraction due to its huge staircase, which really screams Baroque. On each stop it has a fountain, and a little chapel dedicated to The entire complex was commissioned by the archbishop of Braga in 1722, but the old church was demolished in the 1780s and it was given as a project to the other great Bracarense architect: Carlos Amarante. The new church was actually not finished until the 19th century and it rather follows a more Neoclassical style. The altarpiece is dedicated to the Crucifixion. Soares did partake in this construction too, however. He was assigned the work on the chapels behind the church, dealing with scenes after the Crucifixion of Christ keeping the motives through the entire complex.

Torre dos Clérigos

Before I run out of space here, I am going to jump quickly over to Porto. We only went to Porto out for a day trip, and spent most of our time walking around and in museums – more about that some other time. However, Porto is considered the city of the Baroque, and I believe the building that best exemplifies this is Torre dos Clérigos. It is part of the church going by the same name, and considered a national monument since 1910.

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Moreover, the architect behind this work was crucial for the development of the grand or later baroque style in Portugal. His name was Nicolau Nasoni, and he was Italian. He brought the artistic influences of his natal Tuscany to Portugal, were he actually developed his career achieving master pieces such as the above. The tower was built between 1754 and 1763 for the Irmandade dos Clérigos Pobres – a monastic fraternity vowed to poverty. In fact the architect worked on this project for years without being paid, as his benefactors were indeed lacking the funds. (He was, however, remunerated for his work at a later stage). The original project involved the construction of two towers plus the church, however it ended in just the one. The building is 75 meter tall and has a spiral staircase of 240 steps, and its made out of marble and granite.

I hope you found this quick introduction to Portuguese baroque interesting, and that you may find the time to go to spend some time to northern Portugal as it is a seriously lovely area. I will come back with a few more things from my travels but, before I leave, and as corollary of what has been discussed in this post, here I leave you an image of the wonderful organ from the cathedral in Braga – the photo does it no justice what so ever…So go see it for yourselves! 😉

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