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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Unsung Riches of Coimbra Museum

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

The Machado de Castro National Museum is named for the Coimbra native who was a renowned sculptor throughout Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Machado de Castro designed the bronze statue of King Jose I on his horse, symbolically crushing snakes in his path, at Praça do Comercio in Lisbon.


A museum, high up on a hill in Portugal’s former capital of Coimbra, promises the unexpected.

And it delivers with two centuries of sculpture, painting, archaeology and architecture.

Built on a Roman forum from the first century, the Machado de Castro National Museum also comprises a portion of a church’s cloister from the 12th century as well as buildings that were the Bishops’ Palace from the 12th to the 20th century.

In the 16th century, Filippo Terzi, the Italian architect who was Master of Works at Tomar’s Convento de Cristo, designed a loggia, or a roofed open gallery, connecting two wings of the residences of the bishops, and a balcony facing the city.

The museum opened its doors in 1913. However, it underwent an award-winning project of unification from 1999 to 2013 by Gonçalvo Byrne Architects, who wrote:

“The new museum tries to recover the dimension of public space of the Roman Forum, without neglecting the limitations and constraints necessary to museum areas.

“Two areas define a flooded neutral space, illuminated by diffuse light to show the temporal sequence of the fragments of the 18th-century apse (semicircular projecting part) of the Tesoureiro Chapel.

“The gallery occupies the entire space of the trapezoidal shape, rising to four levels and creating a platform (the terrace of the restaurant), where it lays the rectangular space of transparent and translucent glass that at night becomes a sort of lantern light.

“The lower level adapts to the existing layout of the streets. The stone cladding is not mimetic, but consistent with the solid matter of the surrounding streets.”


Tombstones, stone heads of dignitaries and other pieces are on display throughout the cryptoporticus, an underground gallery of arched corridors that supported the Roman Forum in the 1st century. Founded at the time of Augustus, Aeminium was the ancient name of Coimbra. It came under the protection of Conimbraga, which is located about 15 kilometers to the south.



The Capela (Chapel) do Tesoureiro of the Church of Sao Domingos is the work of 16th-century architect and sculptor, Joao de Ruao (Jean de Rouen), whose workshop was in Coimbra. The Frenchman played a major role in introducing and consolidating the spirit of the Renaissance to Portugal. Among his many projects, he built the Porta Especiosa, a three-story portico, at the Se Velha de Coimbra, or Cathedral of Santa Maria of Coimbra.



Os Financeiros, painted by an unknown 16th-century artist from Antwerp

“The painting develops the Flemish matrix of realistic and symbolic strength and insists on the moralizing and satirical character associated with the world of money and finance as well as the many signs of the precariousness and unpredictability of life, and the break with spiritual fertility,” according to the General-Directorate of Cultural Patrimony.

The Machado de Castro National Museum and novobanco signed the protocol for the painting’s transfer on July 29, 2022. The Bank of Portugal introduced novobanco in 2014 to rescue the assets and liabilities of Banco Espirito Santo (BES).



A monstrance is a vessel in which the consecrated host, or eucharistic bread, is exposed for the adoration of the faithful. This 18th-century monstrance can be seen on eye level or from below. There is a stunning contrast between the angel’s polychrome wood, the gilded silver plate, and the luster of semi-precious stones. The piece is completed with plant motifs and various colored stones forming flowers.


A visitor is well aware of the architect’s prowess. Several pieces, such as the Tesoureiro Chapel and the hanging Monstrance of the Sacrament, are displayed so that they can be viewed from more than one vantage point through glass.

What a joy!


The Last Supper is a set of 13 full-scale terracotta sculptures made by Filipe Hodart in the 16th century. Originally located at the Monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, it suffered near destruction after the suppression of the religious orders and was restored recently by the Machado de Castro National Museum, according to CES (Center of Social Studies), University of Coimbra (April 2022).


“The collections of the Machado de Castro National Museum reflect the wealth of the Catholic Church and the importance of royal patronage, which own many of its most valuable works of art and religious pieces,” according to the General-Directorate of Cultural Patrimony.

“Monochrome or polychrome sculpture, in wood and stone, takes pride in place, illustrating with numerous masterpieces the work of the best Flemish workshops and also the evolution of Portuguese schools from the Middle Ages to the 18th century."


Arraiolos rugs are embroidered with wool on jute or cotton canvas, traditionally from the village of Arraiolos, Evora District, in Portugal. The hem, entirely embroidered in different colors, uses the oblique cross-stitch made up of two half crosses, one of which is twice the length of the other. This stitch has been used in the Iberian Peninsula since the 12th century and originated with Muslim techniques, according to the book, Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro.

The ceiling is covered with leather, coated with burnished silver and with yellow varnish, which imitates gold. The next step is molded or incised decoration and, lastly, painting finishes the piece. This art form, much appreciated and copied in Europe from the 15th century onwards, had Muslim origins.


“Even so, the painting, jewelry, ceramics and textiles impose themselves with equal importance. There are also archaeological collections from the city and those of Asian art.”

The museum occupies part of the area recognized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2019 as the World Heritage site of the University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia.

Yet, this visitor saw only one other museum-goer and one small party of schoolchildren. The docents, security guards and cleaner were kind and knowledgeable. One assured me that I would not have gotten lost in the cryptoporticus as she spotted me twice. All of the staff exhibited pride in this jewel.


The Medieval Knight is a limestone miniature from the 14th century by Mestre Pere, who played a major role in the revival of Gothic sculpture in Portugal. The Cavaleiro Medieval, whose initial polychrome has faded, measures 72 x 19.5 x 64.8 centimeters. It comes from Oliveira do Hospital, where there is a second sculpture in the Capela dos Ferreiros. It features a helmeted knight with lowered visor in solid armor and chainmail. The knight is armed with a mace, sword in scabbard and a shield. He is riding a properly harnessed horse either for combat or on parade. The sculpture has been described as “the most remarkable representation of a medieval warrior from the Gothic period”. (Photo by Manuel V. Botelho/Machado de Castro National Museum)


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