The best independent guide to Coimbra
The Santa Cruz monastery is one of the most fascinating religious buildings of Coimbra. The ancient church is the final resting place of Portuguese kings, has numerous glaring design flaws and an organ that can only be played by four people. The uninformed visitor will leave just thinking “what a delightful church” but there is so much more to discover......
The facade of the Santa Cruz church
Coimbra was the original capital of Portugal; when the country was established in 1139 Lisbon was still held by the North African Moors. The first two kings of Portugal, Afonso Henriques (the conquer) and Sancho I (the populator) were placed in the most important church of Coimbra, the Santa Cruz, and this makes the church a National Patheon.
These two historically important and ornate tombs are often completely missed by visitors as they are located either side of the altar. In most churches this area is regarded as off limits to visitors but in the Santa Cruz it is acceptable to explore the raised area surrounding the altar.
Both tombs are mirror images of each other and are facing the head of the church (which has no statue, see later on) and are surrounded by statues that symbolise bravery, leadership and nobility. The figures have astonishing detail including veins and figure nails, also the statue of Alfonso is longer as he was taller in real life.
The tomb of king Alfonso
One of the most notable feature of the Santa Cruz church are the Azulejos tiles that line the walls of the church and depict key events in Portugal’s history. These tiles to the untrained eye appear beautiful but were so badly manufactured that the Lisbon pottery who manufactured them refused to put their name to it.
On closer inspection the Azulejos tiles are of different intensities of blue and some tiles are of varying sizes. The most glaring errors are that broken or damaged tiles were simply replaced by tiles that were completely out of place….
The tiles though badly produced served two important proposes within the church, first to improve the acoustics of the church and second to cover the faded/damaged fresco paintings. The ancient monastery was routinely flooded, when the Mondego River burst its banks during winter storms and the water damage caused the 12th-century paints to fade and decompose. When the church was remodelled in 18th century the frescos were covered by the cheap tiles.
That tile doesn’t fit there…
In most catholic churches the congregation face a representation of the cross or statue of the church’s dedicated saint but in the Santa Cruz the beautiful multi-layered tiers support… well, nothing…
The reason for the missing statue is that the church is dedicated to all of the saints, therefore no statue could be placed in the focal point above the altar. What is in the place where the statue left is a pyramid of tiers that represent the step to heaven.
There’s no religious icon at the front of the church
All of the altars of the Santa Cruz appear to be surrounded by columns constructed of marble but this is a cleverly painted deception. The columns and surrounds on all of the alters are in fact wood painted to look like marble.
A random arch supporting nothing...
The mighty organ is decorated in ornate Japanese artwork and comprises of 4,000 pipes but the complexity needed to play means that only four people actually know how to play the instrument.
The stunning organ of the Igreja de Santa Cruz is just to difficult too play