05 February 2019

Porto’s tall cathedral is a
mix of architectural styles

Inside the cloisters in the Sé do Porto in the old centre of Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

During my first walk about Porto yesterday afternoon [4 February 2019], I visited Porto’s Cathedral or the Sé do Porto, an historic landmark in the old centre where the city was born.

Built on the highest point in the city, the Sé is the most important church building in Porto. Set on a rocky outcrop, it looms above the Morro da Sé, the oldest district in Porto, with its narrow streets, old houses and shops, and residents whose families have lived here for generations, surrounded by the old city walls.

There is evidence that Porto was the seat of a bishop from the fifth and sixth centuries, and a pre-Romanesque church is mentioned in De Expugnatione Lyxbonensi as still standing in 1147.

However, it is said the cathedral was first built by Bishop Hugo, a French bishop who came to Porto before Portuguese independence, around 1113-1136.

The Sé do Porto stands in the old centre of Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The large square around the cathedral was the centre of commerce and trade in the city in the Middle Ages. Here in 1147 the crusaders from northern Europe agreed to join the Portuguese army and help King Afonso Henriques in the conquest of Lisbon, then held by the Moors.

Inside the Sé do Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The present Romanesque cathedral was started in the second half of the 12th century, and a second stage of building work began under Bishop Fernando Martins (1176-1185). Craftsmen from Coimbra worked under the guidance of the Master Soeiro Enes who was responsible for the high capitals of the nave.

The cathedral was rebuilt and renovated many times throughout the centuries and continued constantly into the 16th century. This explains why it is a mix of architectural styles. It is predominantly baroque in style, but the façade and the nave are Romanesque and the cloisters and one of the side chapels are Gothic in style.

The cathedral is flanked by two square towers, each supported by two buttresses and crowned with a cupola. The façade lacks decoration but has a baroque porch and a Romanesque rose window under a crenellated arch, giving the impression of a fortified church.

The Rose Window in the Sé do Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Inside, the Romanesque nave is narrow, reaching up to high by barrel vaulting. The large pillars make the nave seem narrow with a high ceiling. The decoration is restrained, with bare walls and only the high altar and some of the chapels are decorated in a Baroque style.

The nave is flanked by two aisles with a lower vault. The stone roof of the central aisle is supported by flying buttresses, making the building one of the first in Portugal to use this architectural feature.

The present chancel replaced the romanesque apse, which was torn down in the 17th century. The new chancel was built in the mannerist style by Bishop Goncalo de Morais (1606-1610), later decorated with new wall paintings by Nicolau Nasoni and choir stalls. The carved altarpiece, designed by Santos Pacheco and executed by Miguel Francisco da Silva between 1727 and 1729, is an important work of Portuguese Baroque.

The magnificent silver altarpiece in one of the transepts was built by the Porto silversmith Pedro Francisco ‘The Frenchman’ in 1676-1682. It is decorated with four panels, with large oval medallions depicting the four evangelists. In the upper frieze, smaller medallions represent the Doctors of the Church, the Wedding at Cana, the Disciples at Emmaus, Christ served by Angels, and Martha and Mary with Christ.

The baptistery includes a bronze bas-relief by António Teixeira Lopes, depicting the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The baptistery includes a bronze bas-relief by António Teixeira Lopes, depicting the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist.

The Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni added the elegant Baroque loggia to the north side of the cathedral in 1736.

The Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni added the elegant Baroque loggia to the north side of the cathedral in 1736 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The external appearance of the cathedral was greatly altered in the decades that followed. A new main portal replaced the old Romanesque doorway in 1772, and the tower cupolas were altered.

The baroque roofs were added later, as well as the west door and the loggia outside the north wall of the cathedral, designed in the 18th century by Nicolau Nason. Later additions continued into the 20th century.

During the War of the Oranges in the early 19th century, while the battle at Amarante was taking place, a group of Spanish soldiers briefly took control of the cathedral before being overcome by local residents.

The entrance to the cloisters is inside the cathedral through a door on the south side at the west end. The elegant Gothic cloisters were built in the 14th and the 15th centuries, during the reign of King John I, who married the English princess, Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, in Porto Cathedral in 1387.

The cloisters were decorated in 1729-1731 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The cloisters were decorated with baroque azulejo tiles by Valentim de Almeida between 1729 and 1731. They depict Biblical scenes from the Song of Songs, the life of the Virgin Mary and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A mediaeval cross stands in the centre of the cloisters.

The Gothic funerary chapel of João Gordo was added around 1333. He was a Knight Hospitaller who worked for King Dinis I, and his tomb is decorated with his recumbent figure and reliefs of the apostles.

The coffered ceiling of the chapter house was painted with allegories of moral values by Giovanni Battista Pachini in 1737 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

From the cloisters, I had access to the Casa do Cabildo or Chapter House. The coffered ceiling of the chapter house was painted with allegories of moral values by Giovanni Battista Pachini in 1737.

The Cathedral Treasury includes a collection of sacred vessels and vestments.

The 18th century palace in the square is the residence of the Bishops of Porto.

The column in the middle of the square in front of the cathedral marks the former site for hanging criminals. The square also offers impressive views over the city, the Douro River and the wine cellars on the waterfront.

Mass is celebrated in the cathedral each day at 11 a.m.

The column in the square in front of the cathedral marks the former site for hanging criminals (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A few days in Porto and
a shorter pilgrim version
of the Camino to Santiago

The centre of Porto retains many of its original 18th century buildings and has been classified as a world heritage site by Unesco (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Porto, the second city of Portugal, for a few days, having arrived here on a flight from Dublin yesterday [4 February 2019]. This is my second visit to Portugal – I spent a few days in Lisbon in November 2014.

The early Celtic-Latin name of the city, Portus Cale, is sometimes said to be the origin of the name of Portugal, and the city has given its name to Port wine, one of Portugal’s best-known exports.

Porto dates back to ca 300 BC, when Celtic people settled along the banks of the Douro. Under the Roman rule, the city developed as an important commercial port, and later it was a centre for Christian expansion.

Porto was captured by the Moors when they invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711. In 868, Count Vímara Peres, a subject of King Alfonso III of Asturias, reconquered the area from the Minho to the Douro River, including Portus Cale, later referred to as Portucale, and established the County of Portugal.

John I of Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, were married in Porto in 1387, symbolising a long-time alliance between Portugal and England, the world’s oldest recorded military alliance.

It was also from the port of Porto that Prince Henry the Navigator, son of John I of Portugal, set off in 1415 on an expedition initiated the Portuguese Age of Discovery.

In 1642, two years after the restoration of Portugal’s independence, Nicholas Comerforde was the first British consul in Porto.

The Methuen Treaty in 1703 established trade relations between Portugal and England, and the first English trading post was established in Porto in 1717. The production of port wine then gradually passed into the hands of a few English firms.

Porto is known as the city of bridges, and I crossed some of the bridges over the Douro late yesterday afternoon after my arrival and after a late lunch. The first permanent bridge, the Ponte das Barcas, was built in 1806. It was replaced by the Ponte D. Maria II, popularised under the name Ponte Pênsil and built in 1841-1843. The Ponte D. Maria, a railway bridge, was designed by Gustave Eiffel, who also designed the Eifel Tower in Paris. The later Ponte Dom Luís I replaced the Ponte Pênsil.

I am staying in the historic centre of Porto, which Unesco designated a World Heritage Site in 1996. The architectural highlights of the city include Porto Cathedral, the oldest surviving building, the small Romanesque Church of Cedofeita, the Gothic Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis), the remnants of the city walls and some 15th-century houses.

Other interesting buildings include the magnificent Stock Exchange Palace, with its Arab Room, the Hospital of Saint Anthony, the Municipality, the buildings in the Liberdade Square and the Avenida dos Aliados, the tile-adorned São Bento Train Station and the gardens of the Crystal Palace.

Porto is home to the largest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest in Europe – the Kadoorie Synagogue, opened in 1938 – and I plan to take part in a walking tour of Jewish Porto later today.

Porto is also on the Portuguese Way path of the Camino de Santiago, starting at the Sé or Cathedral, and I am planning a visit to Santiago de Compostela tomorrow [6 February 2019].

Join me over the next few days on my rambles through the second city of Portugal and on my own short and brief pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.