Judith and the stoney stare

12 Feb

I love the face above the relief, don’t you?

Judith (1500s) Jerónimos Monestary

Unknown, “Judith and Holofernes,” 1500s, Stone carving in cloister, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, PT; photo by Paul Dykes

Jerónimos (aka St. Jerome, nee Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus) was the inspiration for the hermit movement in 14th-century Italy, the catalyst for number of religious orders.  (Who knew there was a hermit movement?)  Jerome was best known for outlining the lifestyle for Christians living in urban “melting pots of cultures” – especially the lives of women, based on close patronage with devout female members of prominent Roman senatorial families.

Social and religious upheavals after his peaceful death contributed to growth in the hermit lifestyle, and ultimately to the founding of the Hieronymite Order in Iberia (read carefully: not Hermaphrodite).  Through connections with the Portuguese monarch Manuel I and with the Pope’s consent, construction of the monastery and church for the Hieronymite Order began in 1501 and was completed 100 years later – in a style known as Manueline architecture.  Manuel I selected the Hieronymite monks to occupy the monastery “to pray for the King’s eternal soul and to provide spiritual assistance to navigators and sailors who departed from the port of Restelo to discover lands around the world. This the monks did for over four centuries until 1833, when the religious orders were dissolved and the monastery was abandoned” (1). (So altruistic, no?) After falling into disrepair, the monastery was restored from 1860 to 1880, and Vasco da Gama’s remains were transferred there to celebrate the starting point of his first journey around Africa to India and back.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The original cloister where Judith is found was designed to be an “agreeable and serene place for prayer, meditation and leisure for the monks.” (2).  The two stories, with vaulted ceilings and quadrangular layout, reflect the Mauline style – richly ornate combinations of –

  • religious symbols (images from the Passion, among others)
  • royal imagery (the Cross of the Order of Christ, the armillary sphere, the royal coat of arms)
  • naturalist elements (ropes and plant-inspired motifs that cohabit with late Mediaeval imagery of fantastic animals)
  • maritime elements and objects discovered during naval expeditions

And to the left of the entrance between the third and fourth arch, there sits Judith, mounted on a clamshell – a ship’s wheel on one side and a decapitated head on the other.  (Oh, you can’t see her?  Squint real hard.  Not yet?  Then you will probably have to enlarge the photo like I did.  But trust me, it’s her.)  She looks rather bored.  But consider: she only had monastic hermits to look at for 230 years.  Your face would probably turn to stone, too.



(1) Jerónimos Monastery,

(2) Government of Portugal, Department of Cultural Heritage,  Mosteiro dos Jerónimos,

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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Distracted


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