Belém in Portuguese refers to Bethlehem. This magnificent church architecture is in Late Gothic Manueline style, best expressed in the Western Portal also transitions from Gothic/Manueline to the ornate Renaissance architecture, in the early 1500s. Many of Lisbon’s most significant historical edifices are in the immediate area, including adjacent Jerónimos Monastery and Belém Tower, which is across the street at the edge of Tagus River. Although it resembles one, this is not a cathedral, which is so designated as the seat of a cardinal. The ‘church’ was known as Ermida do Restelo (Hermitage of Restelo) and had already fallen into disrepair when Vasco da Gama and his sailors prayed the entire night before departing on their 1497 expedition to the Orient. (Tourists now pray for flights to depart on time, and no missed connections or lost luggage☺)
The Church features a Latin cross floorplan configuration. There are three naves and a single polinervada vaulted ceiling supported by six pillars on a circular base. The vaulted ceiling spans 30 meters, the greatest width possible given the limited number of supports and flying buttresses. The Church takes on the air of a museum. One of the most famous is “The Penitent in the Desert” near the tomb/sarcophagus of Vasco da Gama. It depicts an emaciated saint in the desert while meditating in front of a crucifix. The Church, Monastery, and Belém Tower were classified UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983. Words of caution: Dozens of mega-tour buses arrive from midmorning to afternoon. Queues for the Church, Tower, and Monastery are exceptionally long. The tour companies purchase time-stamped tickets, so those visitors pass by the long lines. There are “Skip The Line” tours, but they are exceptionally expensive, and so regimented that if you’re five minutes late, you lose the opportunity—and no refund! Avoid weekends or national holidays.
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