Few countries have a history as rich as Portugal, even fewer are home to such unique cultural traditions. The super-power of the 15th and 16th centuries – thanks to the wealth brought by its colonies around the world – Portugal erected some of the most magnificent palaces, churches and monasteries of Europe, and on its battlefields the destiny of Europe was once decided. On top of that, 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 crossed the Atlantic Ocean before anyone else, Portugal dominated, for centuries, the lucrative spice and slave trades. That era is long gone, but its legacy and riches will forever be part of the country’s heritage. As is Catholicism – in Portugal, churches are full of people actually praying, not only taking pictures.
The Catholic Church was as powerful as the monarchy in Portugal for centuries, and the confluence of the two powers created one of the country’s most beautiful stories: that of a royal princess called Joana, daughter of king Afonso Vand heir to the throne until her brother was born. In 1472, against her father wishes, and with vehement protests of the royal court, Joana decided to follow her vocation and retire to a convent to become a Carmelite nun. It was a scandal!
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 marry 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 child: pious and devoted, she was usually found praying in her room, rather that in the elegant balls of the court.
The sincerity of her pledges finally won over her father’s wishes, and the king agreed to let her follow her heart. Joana then chose humble Aveiro, a small fishermen’s town that welcomed her with open arms. There, in the Convent of Jesus, her presence would soon bring the economic and cultural development Aveiro so needed. She lived there for the last 18 years of her life – she died at 38. She was dedicated to charity and to the poor, just just like all the other nuns, and many miracles were attributed to her. Specially – oddly enough – of infertile women becoming pregnant after contacting her.
In 1693 the Vatican beatified her as Saint Joana, and she is the patron saint of Aveiro.
Her Convent of Jesus was closed in 1874, when the last nun died, and it now contains the Museum of Aveiro, which houses an 18th-century church considered a masterpiece of Baroque art anywhere. Its elaborate gilded-wood carvings and ceilings are among Portugal’s finest, and Joana’s multi-colored inlaid-marble sarcophagus, in the lower choir, is a piece of beauty. Same for the nuns’ former refectory – with 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 this rich 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 in her country’s history.