Portugal: A Short History through Art & Architecture

Solar de Mateus, Vila Real. The most famous 18th century manor house in Portugal, not least because it appears on the rosé wine label we all know! The palace, with its white walls relieved by an extravagance of stone façade decoration and extraordinary pinnacles, is an excellent example of Portuguese Baroque architecture.

Located in the extreme southwest of Europe, Portugal is a narrow rectangle of land, 560km long and 119 to 220km wide. Its political borders are, from a geographical point of view, completely artificial, but they have remained stable since the end of the 13th century. The Atlantic coast is not as long as the land border with Spain but it allowed Luís de Camões to say in his epic poem The Lusíadas, published in 1572 that “Portugal is the head of Europe,  the place where the land ends and the sea begins”.  

The territory that is now Portugal was once held by the moors that occupied the Iberian Peninsula since the 8th century. From the 12th to the end of the 13th century it was conquered by the Christian Portuguese kings from Afonso Henriques to Afonso III.

Despite its diminutive size, Portugal is a land where art flourished throughout the centuries, providing a lens through which we can view the country and its evolution.

Below is a selection of different monuments or works of art that illustrate Portugal and its history.

Since very ancient times, the modern Portuguese territory was occupied by very different peoples – Greeks, Phoenicians, Visigoths, Carthaginians or Romans. Traces of these early civilisations are found throughout Portugal, from the prehistoric megalithic complex of the Almendres, located near Évora in southern Portugal, to the Roman  city of Conimbriga near Coimbra in central Portugal.

During the Middle Ages, Portugal was the stage of many battles as the Portuguese kings sought to conquer the land from the Moors and the conversion of the land to Christianity. The pursuit of this ideal led to many of Portugal’s early kings devoting their lives to conquering the territory, building castles and cathedrals that look like fortresses, and giving land to several religious orders to help settle the population and prevent reconquest by the Moors.

Alcobaça was built over a large expanse of land given by Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. The main abbey of Clairvaux in France was destroyed during the French revolution, so Alcobaça provides the best example of how the Cistertcian monks built and lived. 

At the Machado the Castro Museum in Coimbra, one of the Portuguese historical cities, there is on display a 14th century sculpture by Mestre Pêro that depicts a Portuguese knight from the era, mounted and clad in battle armour.

 Beautiful images (below) now in Lisbon at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, are also attributed to Mestre Pêro, and could most probably be seen in small Romanesque churches, like the one in Airães, or São Pedro de Rates in northern Portugal.

Around 1383 a great dynastic crisis ensued after the death of king Fernando, whose daughter and heiress to the throne was married to the king of Castille, left the realm without a ruler because the Portuguese wouldn’t accept rule by the Castillians. The future king João I, illegitimate child of king Pedro and brother of Fernando, fought for the throne against the king of Castille and won a resounding victory at Aljubarrota in 1385.  Having promised the Virgin Mary he would build Her a monastery in case of victory, he ordered the construction of a huge monastery called Monastery of Our Lady of the Victory where the best Portuguese and foreign master builders from that time were employed.  

This monastery, built in the Gothic style, had Manueline decoration added during the reign of king Manuel I.

In 1415, under the command of king João I, the Portuguese army set sail from Lisbon to capture Ceuta, an important city in northern Morocco. This gave Portugal control of the Straits of Gibraltar and later the trade with the East, which had until then been monopolized by the Moors and the Venetians.

Later, in the reign of King Manuel, the Portuguese arrived in India (1498) and two years later in Brazil (1500). Here established colonies and trading post, and came into contact with peoples of vastly different cultures. In addition to vast wealth, a result of this contact was the new cultural ideas and artistic treasures that were introduced to the Portuguese.

All this allowed the king to finance many improvements in different buildings such as the Palace of Sintra or the Monstery of Batalha, and also new commissions such as the building of the Monastery of Jerónimos in Lisbon, and artistic such as the Belém monstrance for that same monastery.

Later, in 1543, the Portuguese arrived in Japan where they introduced firearms and the Christian religion; their presence is pictured in the Namban Screens, which represent Portuguese traders arriving and departing from Japan. Despite the continued expansion of Portuguese territory during his reign, King João III began to experience the difficulties in maintaining its overseas territories. His heir and grandson King Sebastian, died young and a period of decay began.

King Philip II of Spain became king of Portugal in 1580 and Portugal it was 60 years before Portugal could recover its independence. A fragile country emerged from that period and even being independent, the war with Spain lasted until 1668.

A new era of prosperity was only possible after the ascension to the throne of king João V in 1706. The king endeavored to project Portugal as an international power by sending several luxury embassies to the pope and embarking on an ambitious building program in an attempt to emulate Rome and the court of Louis XIV of France. The building of the huge monastery-palace in Mafra, was possible because of the enormous amount of gold and precious stones brought from Brazil. This wealth allowed the king to indulge in the heavy use of imported luxury goods like Italian marbles, and he even commissioned from Rome fully fitted and decorated chapels, such as the Chapel of St. John the Baptist in the Lisbon Church of Saint Roch. Another crucial work commissioned by João V was the University Library in Coimbra, one of the most beautifully decorated in Portugal.

One of the biggest tragedies that ever befell Portugal occurred during the reign of King João V’s son, José I. The earthquake and resulting tsunami of 1755 almost entirely destroyed Lisbon and damaged areas nearby such as Sintra and even reach the southern coast of Portugal. It struck on 1st November, All Saints day, when many were attending mass. The candles burning in churches throughout the city started a huge fire. It is estimated that the earthquake caused the death of over 10.000 people., making it one of the deadliest earthquakes on record. The, prime minister of King José, the Marquis of Pombal was the man charged with the reconstruction efforts that rebuilt and modernized the city.

Meanwhile in northern Portugal, the earthquake was a distant event and great art and architectural ensembles continued to be commissioned. In 1756 the Dominican friarsat the 11th century Monastery of Tibães commissioned one of the most impressive baroque decorations still extant. It later became the Dominican main house for Portugal and Brazil. This vast complex has an astonishing church that is one of the best examples of the gilded wood carved baroque and rococo decoration in the north, and had an enormous influence in other buildings in northern Portugal and in colonial churches, especially in Brazil. The architect André Soares designed the main altarpiece as well as the woodwork of the triumphal arch of the main chapel, the pulpits and lateral chapels.

Porto, the country’s second largest city is an important place to visit. Here we find the Saint Francis Church, a Gothic church entirely covered during the 17th and 18th centuries with a gilded wood carved baroque decoration and therefore known as the “Golden Church”.

Other important monuments of the city are the Clergy Tower and church, built by the Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni between 1735-1748; and the Stock Exchange and Fund Market, a neoclassical building dating 1862-1880. At the Soares dos Reis Museum (named after an important sculptor) we find interesting works from Portuguese 19th century painters including the Self-Portrait of Aurélia de Sousa, possibly the first known Portuguese female painter.

The Portuguese 20th century began, in a sense, with the murder of King Carlos in Lisbon in 1908. Two years later the monarchy was abolished and Portugal became a republic with unstable governments and a terrible economic crisis that lead to the government of António de Oliveira Salazar after a military coup in 1926. The country was poor and underdeveloped and life was particularly hard for artists. In spite of all those difficulties, the first half of the century was marked by the work of important painters like Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, who lived and studied in Paris, was very much influenced by the Parisian artistic movements and, unfortunately died in 1918  from the ‘Spanish Flu’, as did the musician António Fragoso.

In 1940, the Great Universal Exhibition (Exposição do Mundo Português) took place in Lisbon, just in front of the Jerónimos Monastery. One of the main painters who worked there was José de Almada Negreiros, one of the most important Portuguese painters of the 20th century.

After the 1955 death of Calouste Gulbenkian, a British national of Armenian origin and a collector and businessman, a foundation bearing his name was created in Lisbon,  aiming to improve people’s lives through art, charity, science and education. This foundation helped Paula Rego, a Portuguese painter living in London, develop her career by giving her a scholarship early in the 70’s. Rego is nowadays the most important living Portuguese painter and has her own museum in Cascais.

Portugal’s vast colonial empire that had been founded in 1415 at the start of the Age of Discovery, lasted for almost 6 centuries and was only officially dissolved in 1999. However, the country’s colonial ambitions had long been waning. In 1822 Brazil declared its independence, in 1961 India annexed Goa (a Portuguese territory since 1515), while the colonies in Africa – Portuguese Guinea, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde and São Tomé Islands – became independent in 1974-1975. Indonesia annexed Portuguese Timor in 1975, and the final territory, Macau, was returned to China in 1995.


Solar de Mateus, Vila Real
Cromeleque_dos_Almendres by João Carvalho wikicommon
Roman Ruins Conimbraga by Julia Kelly
Queluz National Palace, Queluz. by Julia Kelly.
Medieval knight sculpture by Mestre Pêro manuelvbotelho wikicommon
Igreja de Santa Maria de Airães by Alegna13 Wiki commons
Mestre Pêro Sculptures, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, wikicommon
São Pedro de Rates by Joseolgon_Wiki Commons
Mosteiro da Batalha, Portugal – Waugsberg wiki common
Gaint Chimneys Sintra Palace Ian Gampon from NYC, USA – uploaded by tm wikicommon
Church by John Middleton
The Panels of Saint Vincent painted around 1470 by Nuno Gonçalves and related with the Portuguese Discoveries wikicommon
Belem Monstrance Museum Nacional de Arte Antiga reliquary by Dguendel wiki common
Mogul Cabinet  Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga by Sailko wikicommon
Namban Screen at Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga by Sailko wikicommon
Cappella de São João Baptista Lisbon by Igor Zyx wikicommon
Universitat de Coïmbra – Biblioteca by Josep Ronalias wikicommons
Interior Monastery of Tibães by Joseolgon wikicommon
Church of Saint Francis in Porto  Asmodaeus
Self-Portrait of Aurélia de Sousa wiki common
Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, 1887-1918Biblioteca de Arte / Art Library Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian wiki common
The Little Bright House painting by Amadeo de Souza Cardoso
View of Porto. Photo by Julia Kelly