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Santa Clara Convent and Church

As  a result of the extensive reconstruction that took place during the Baroque period, nothing at all remains of the original chapel which was erected by João Gonçalves Zarco, the discoverer of  the island. The cloister was built by the order of Zarco’s son, João Gonçalves da Câmara, in the late 15th Century. The tombs of João Gonçalves Zarco, João Gonçalves da Câmara and Simão Gonçalves da Câmara, the first three governors of the island, still exist under the wooden floors of the High Altar of the present church. On the façade of the building you will see a very beautiful Gothic portal  and, adjacent to this, a tower with a cupola roofed by tiles from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

The hushed and delicate Interior of Santa Clara near the Quinta das Cruzes

Foremost among the riches to be found in the church and convent of Santa Clara is the superb assembly of Hispano-Arabic tiles. This art was brought from Mesopotamia and Persia by the Arabs who, having first spread themselves all along the Mediterranean, invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, bringing with them the artistic traditions of a great civilization.
With the Christian Reconquest the Arabs were expelled from Spain and Portugal. However, much of the technical  and artistic skill remained, and was even further developed from the 12th to the 16th Centuries as the Mudejar art was continued and cultivated by Arabs converted to Christianity. Hispano-Arabic tiles can de  found in many of the great buildings constructed during this epoch, both in Spain and in Portugal. After Madeira’s discovery and colonization in the 15th Century, they inevitably traveled to the island.

Some of the rare and history filled Hispano-Arabic tiles in Santa Clara

Thus the tiles in the Santa Clara Church and Convent follow the Mudejar tradition of rigorously arranged geometric designs combined with stylized natural forms. The angular precision of each tile permits an endless repetition of a theme; the polygon stars interlace and join to compose a continuous pattern that could extend into infinity. Whether found on large tiled surfaces, or in the carved “alfarge” ceilings you will note this strict geometry.

The Arabic prohibition of any representation in human form explains why the designs never depict any living thing unless it has been ruthlessly stylized. This can be especially noted in the treatment of plant forms where each tile joins the next in a systematic repetition of the same design. This interlocking will govern the pattern of immense surfaces without interruption.

17th Century tiles

These Mudejar tiles can be monochromatic, polychromatic, or entirely in tones of copper. In Santa Clara only the first two are represented.
In the Upper Choir Loft the tiles are limited to a monochromatic green. There are seven entwined patterns, two in stylized vegetable forms. In the center of the paved floor there is a small group of polychrome tiles. From the point of view of composition there seems to have been no organization whatever. Some of these tiles are yellowish in colour, some purple.

 In the Lower Choir Loft you will see a pavement of spectacular Hispano-Arabic tiles which, until very recently, have been covered over and hidden by a wooden floor. Here you will discover tiles of a different type, arranged in conjunction, each joining another to achieve a curious play of composition.
In the body of the church you will discover walls paneled in tiles of the Baroque period in contrast to all the Mudejar examples. These are coloured in blue and yellow and extend to the Choir Lofts. Here, frames of tile surround various openings including that of the tomb of Martim Mendes Vasconcelos.
We have yet to point out the tiles in the Cloister. These were originally in the Chapel of the Resurrection ( in a camellia pattern) and the Chapel of St. Luis ( with a pattern of corn ears).
In the Convent, the Chapel of S. Domingos contains Flemish tiles from the 16th Century. In yellow, turquoise and brown they are assembled in a pavement unique in all Portugal. Within the chapel, now restored, the walls are put together in a complicated jumble which shows they have been tampered within recent times.

There are no specific visiting hours but, if you will ring the bell to the right of the entrance, one of the Santa Clara Sisters bid you to enter.

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