Mafra Convent – National Palace – A Majestic Building

Mafra Convent and Basilica – a sumptuous building

ON a windswept plain 35 miles north of Lisbon stands one of Europe’s great white elephants.  The Mafra Convent which is also known as the National Palace, is an UNESCO heritage monument.

Constructed by King João V to fulfil a promise that he would build a monastery if he received an heir. The King of Portugal had married Dona Maria of Austria in 1708.  Three years later she was still childless. The King then made a pledge.  A daughter, Dona Maria Barbara, later Queen of Spain, was born the same year in 1711.

The Mafra Convent – National Palace

Mafra Convent

Foundation stone, construction

The foundation stone was laid in November 1717. At that time Portugal was receiving gold from new mines. These were from what was to become the state of Minas Gerais, in Brazil.  This spectacular wealth arrived in ships up the Tejo estuary. It was for all in the capital and for Portugal’s rivals to see.  King João V planned that the Convent of Mafra should be a monastery to rival the vast Escorial outside Madrid.  Johann Friedrich Ludwig of Ratisbon drew the plans in Rome for this great building.  He was to engineer the vast building and supervise its construction.

Almost all the master carpenters, master builders, master masons, sculptors and artists were Italian. Materials came from Italy, France, Brazil and Flanders. The gold that came from Brazil passed through Portuguese hands to enrich other nations. The Portuguese contribution to Mafra was paying the bills.  Some 48 million cruzados enough to seriously weaken the country’s economy – and to supply the workforce.

A total of 50,000 people worked on the Convent. They used 1270 Cattle to pull carts carrying materials, including marble and limestone blocks.  They used 7000 handcarts. A force of over 7000 soldiers supervised this vast army of compulsory labourers.  Many workers, cooks and workcamp attendants were absent from productive work in fields, vineyards, towns and villages. This crippled the country’s economy. The number of people who died during the construction was 1383.

The Church

The building of Mafra, including a huge basilica and royal palace, took 17 years. In 1730 a service lasting eight hours to dedicate the church took place. The Convent and palace were completed only in 1735.

The Convent and Palace building is without doubt one of the most sumptuous in Portugal. It is 220 metres in length along the front, covering 40,000 square metres. It has a total of 880 rooms and 4500 doors and windows.

The church of Nossa Senhora and Santo António de Mafra is the central building of the whole complex. It was modelled after St Peter’s Basilica and the Church of Jesus in Rome.  Outside are 18 huge Italian statues. Inside there are 40 statues.  A notice inside the church does not seem to appreciate the irony.  It declares that Mafra has the best collection of Italian 18th century sculpture in Portugal.

Mafra Convent Basilica

The vital statistics of the basilica speak of the scale of the whole complex of Mafra.  The dome stands 65 metres high from the floor, is 13 metres in diameter.  It took two and a half years to build. The church is just short of 60 metres long and 43 metres at the crossing.  The enormous size is reduced to view it on a human scale. It is done by tricks of light and by our own eyes.  By the abundance of different colours and different shapes of limestone and marble. Here is pink, white, blue , yellow, red, grey and black. The effect is to break up the preposterous and monotonous scale. This makes up for the dull main façade facing the modern little town of Mafra.

Famous Bells of Mafra

Mafra Convent bells

The basilica has 11 chapels and six organs, with a total of 24 pipes.   It is famous for its bells. The Convent of Mafra has the largest “orchestra” of bells anywhere in the world.  Each of the two towers has 57 bells forty-eight of these cast in Liege and Antwerp in 1730. The biggest bell weighs 10 tonnes. The smallest weighs 30 kilogrammes.

On  Sundays in the Summer you can hear the bell concert at 4pm.

The Library

Mafra Convent Library

One of the most beautiful parts of the whole complex is the library.  Built specially to house some 80,000 volumes. The rococco room, at 88 metres long, is the longest in the whole complex. It is a waking dream of ivory light, gilded decoration and shinning marble floor of varied colours.  The other rooms of the palace feel dull to the senses by comparision.

Mafra feels like the setting for a comic opera. It is the setting for Portuguese Nobel prize winner José Saramago’s “Balthazar and Blimunda.”

It takes about over an hour to visit the whole palace. Here you can see fabulous art, furniture, the library, the marble, the intricate designs.

The Mafra Convent is open from 10am to 5pm. Closed Tuesday.
Tel: +351-261-817-550.

Article By Steve English

Fotos by Pat Rodrigues