Few countries have a history as rich as Portugal, even fewer can claim such unique cultural traditions. The super-power of the XV and XVI centuries – thanks to the wealth brought by its maritime expeditions and conquests – Portugal erected some of the most magnificent palaces, churches and monasteries of Europe, and on its battlefields the destiny of Europe was once decided. The Portuguese have the oldest nation-state in Europe, with the same borders for over 800 years, and speak the same language throughout the country.
Birthplace of the first navigators, brave sailors who explored the African coast and the Atlantic Ocean before anyone else, Portugal lived for centuries in the abundance made possible by the spice and the slave trade it dominated, as well as by huge amounts of gold coming from their colonies in Asia and America. That golden era is now gone, but its legacy will forever be part of the country’s heritage.
As is Catholicism, at the heart of their culture. In Portugal, churches are full of people actually praying, not only taking pictures.
The church was as powerful as the monarchy for many centuries, and its confluence created one of Portugal’s most beautiful stories: that of a royal princess called Joana, daughter of king Afonso V and heir to the throne until she was three years old, when her brother was born. In 1472, against her father wishes and with vehement protests of all in the royal court, Joana decided to follow her vocation and retired to a convent to become a Carmelite nun.
The princess was said to be very beautiful, ‘tall and straight’ according to tales of the time, with a shapely mouth of full lips, something not common in the royal houses of Europe. By the age of 17 she had already refused to be married to two princes heirs to their thrones – of France and of England, no less – despite her ambitious brother’s efforts to make her a queen.
Joana’s religious vocation had been clear since she was a small girl – pious and devoted, she was usually found praying in her room in the palace, rather that in the elegant balls of the court.
The sincerity of her pledges finally won over her father’s, and he agreed to let her follow her heart. Joana chose the humble Convent of Jesus, in Aveiro, a small fishermen’s town that welcomed her with open arms. Her presence would soon bring impetus to the economic and cultural development Aveiro so needed, and she lived there for the last last 18 years of her life – she died at 38 – dedicated to charity and to the poor, just just like all the other nuns. Many miracles were attributed to her, specially – oddly enough – of women who could not become pregnant doing so after contacting her. In 1693 the Vatican beatified her as Saint Joana, and she is the patron saint of Aveiro.
The Convent of Jesus was closed in 1874, when the last nun died. It now contains the Museum of Aveiro, in which there is a magnificent 18th-century church whose interior is a masterpiece of Baroque art. Its elaborately gilded-wood carvings and ceilings are among Portugal’s finest; blue-and-white azulejo panels depict the life of Joana, whose remains are laid in a multi color inlaid-marble sarcophagus in the lower choir. The nuns former refectory is another wonder – its walls lined with magnificent camellia-motif tiles – and the 16th-century Renaissance cloisters one of the most impressive in the country.
But the main attraction of the Museum is a particularly fine 15th-century portrait of Joana, a royal princess of exquisite beauty, that by refusing to be a queen became one of the most beloved figures of her country’s history. Her short but rich life was extraordinary in many ways, and the place she chose to live is today one of the most inspiring places in all Portugal.