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The Hieronymite Order

The Order's Origins

The hermit movement inspired by the life of St. Jerome first emerged in 14th-century Italy, giving rise to a number of religious groups. One of them developed around the figure of Tommasucio da Foligno. The growth in the hermit lifestyle had a lot to do with the social and religious upheavals of the time. When the Italian master died, several of his followers moved to the Iberian Peninsula, where, having come into contact with Spanish hermit groups, they founded the Hieronymite Order.

One of Tommasucio's disciples who travelled to Spain was Vasco Martins. Born in Leiria, he later returned to Portugal and, on 1 April 1400 he was granted, by Pope Boniface IX a Piis Votis Fidelium Papal Bull for the establishment of two monasteries - at Penhalonga in Sintra and Mato in Alenquer. This was the fulfilment of the desire and need shared by the hermit community to exchange their harsh, unsheltered life for monastic life. Other monasteries followed: São Marcos (1451) in Coimbra and Our Lady of the Thorn Bush (1457) near Évora.

In the reign of Manuel I, the order, which was already known by its connections with and service to the monarchy, experienced considerable growth. With the Pope's consent, the king planned to build twelve Hieronymite monasteries, but that wish was not fully realised. In the first half of the 16th century the monasteries of Santa Maria de Belém (Lisbon), Our Lady of Pena (Sintra), Berlengas (Peniche) - which, for safety reasons was replaced by the Vale Benfeito monastery (Óbidos) - and Santa Marinha da Costa (Guimarães) were founded, as well as a University College (Coimbra).

A provincial - the authority figure the monks were obliged to obey - presided over the order, whose headquarters in Portugal were initially at the Penha Longa monastery before moving to Belém. During the Spanish occupation (1580-1640), the Portuguese monasteries forfeited their independence; they regained it with the restoration of the Portuguese monarchy in 1640.The Hieronymite monks chose a white habit, over which they wore a brown scapulary. They observed the Rule of Saint Augustine and followed a set of principles on community life. In other specific matters they were governed by constitutions and statutes. For example, liturgical and individual prayer were integral parts of daily life in the order, as were attendance at the sacraments, fasting and abstinence from eating meat, penitence, silence and solitude, reading, the study of grammar and moral and sacred music. As they were forbidden to work with their hands for income, the Hieronymites were a contemplative order with a strong humanistic leaning and a high degree of culture, to which the libraries in the respective monasteries are testament.

The Monastery of Santa Maria de Belém:

The devotion and particular interest King Manuel had for the Hieronymite Order derived from the order's contemplative spirituality, its innovation in religious life and the status it already had in Spain. The order had always enjoyed huge devotion on the part of royalty for, in addition to its "good and exemplary customs", it fitted in with the type of religiousness Manuel favoured and his political goals for the Iberian Peninsula. These were the reasons why he chose the Hieronymites to occupy the Monastery in which he himself was to be buried, and which was to serve as a pantheon for the Avis-Beja dynasty that began with him.

Thus, the Jerónimos Monastery was given to the monks of the Hieronymite Order, who were perpetually obliged to celebrate daily mass for the souls of the Henry the Navigator and Manuel I and his successors. There was a connection of reciprocal favours between the king and the monastic community: the king protected the order and the latter undertook to glorify and perpetuate the monarch's memory and the grandiose achievements of the Portuguese nation. Other regular tasks of the order were to hear the confessions of and provide spiritual assistance to the seafarers and navigators who departed from Belém to discover new worlds.

Following the advent of Liberalism in 1833, the religious orders were dissolved in Portugal. The community of monks in the Monastery was disbanded and they had to leave the premises they had occupied for almost four centuries. The Jerónimos Monastery became an asset of the State and served as a school up until 1940.