Belém is a historically important part of Lisbon near the mouth of the river Tagus. The name Belém means ‘Bethlehem’ in Portuguese. This parts of Lisbon is known for its cultural and historical heritage, such as the famous Jerónimos Monastery and the Torre de Belém, a tower guarding the mouth of the river. Here we also find the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a modern monument for Henry the Navigator and other Portuguese men (and one woman) who played a large role in Portugal’s Age of Discoveries.
The monument was erected between 1958 and 1960, and was completed just in time to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. Henry (1394-1460) was the son of King João I, the first king from the House of Aviz (see Portugal: Batalha). He served as Grand Master of the Order of Christ, the successor order to the Knights Templar. The Order of Christ was very wealthy and financed many of the naval explorations undertaken by the Portuguese (see Portugal: Tomar) in the fifteenth century. Although Henry himself never participated in any of these missions, he certainly encouraged them and thus deservedly earned the nickname ‘The Navigator’, although it was only given to him in the nineteenth century.
The monument was built in the shape of a caravel, a fast sailing ship used by the Portuguese for their explorations. On the bow of the ship is a statue of Henry, holding a model of a caravel in his hand. On either side of the monument are an additional sixteen figures. Let us take a closer look at these people.
On the eastern side of the monument, we see mostly explorers:
- Henry the Navigator (1394-1460);
- King Afonso V of Portugal (1432-1481);
- Vasco da Gama, explorer (1460/69-1524);
- Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia, explorer (ca. 1415-1481);
- Pedro Álvares Cabral, explorer (ca. 1467-1520; see Portugal: Santarém);
- Fernão de Magalhães, explorer known as Magellan in the English-speaking world (ca. 1480-1521);
- Nicolau Coelho, explorer (ca. 1460-1502);
- Gaspar Corte-Real, explorer (ca. 1450-after 1501);
- Martim Afonso de Sousa, explorer and governor of India (ca. 1500-1564);
- João de Barros, historian (1496-1570);
- Estêvão da Gama, son of Vasco da Gama and governor of Portuguese Gold Coast (ca. 1505-1576);
- Bartolomeu Dias, explorer (ca. 1450-1500);
- Diogo Cão, explorer (second half of the 15th century);
- António de Abreu, navigator (ca. 1480-1514);
- Afonso de Albuquerque, admiral, Viceroy of India, Duke of Goa (ca. 1453-1515);
- Franciscus Xaverius, missionary, co-founder of the Jesuit Order (1506-1552);
- Cristóvão da Gama, soldier, son of Vasco da Gama (ca. 1516-1542).
The western side of the monument has statues of:
- Henry the Navigator (1394-1460);
- Fernando the Holy Prince, brother of Henry the Navigator who died in Moroccan captivity (1402-1443);
- João Gonçalves Zarco, explorer (ca. 1390-1471);
- Pêro de Alenquer, explorer (15th century);
- Gil Eanes, explorer (15th century);
- Pedro Nunes, mathematician (1502-1578);
- Pêro Escobar, explorer (15th century);
- Jacome of Majorca, cartographer (15th century);
- Pêro de Covilhã, explorer and diplomat (ca. 1460-after 1526);
- Gomes Eanes de Zurara, chronicler (ca. 1410-1474);
- Nuno Gonçalves, painter (15th century);
- Luís Vaz de Camões, poet (ca. 1524-1580);
- Henrique de Coimbra, Franciscan missionary (ca. 1465-1532);
- Gonçalo de Carvalho, Dominican missionary (15th century);
- Fernão Mendes Pinto, explorer and writer (ca. 1509-1583);
- Philippa of Lancaster, Queen of Portugal, mother of Henry the Navigator (1360-1415);
- Infante Pedro, Duke of Coimbra, brother of Henry the Navigator (1392-1449);
The monument is 52 metres high and you can take the elevator to the observation deck on the roof. From the observation deck, you have a splendid view of Belém and the surrounding area. To the west are the mouth of the Tagus and the Torre de Belém, and if you look east, you can see the famous Ponte 25 de Abril and the Christo Rei statue, based on the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. To the north is the Jerónimos monastery and if you look down, you will see a rose compass with a map of the world that charts the voyages of the Portuguese ships during the Age of Discoveries.
Although it would be an exaggeration to say that the Padrão dos Descobrimentos is a controversial monument, you have to keep in mind that it was built during the authoritarian Salazar regime (1933-1974), and relates to an era which was not just about exploration, but also about expansion and colonialism. In a way, the Padrão is, as they say in German, both a Denkmal (monument) and a Mahnmal (monument with a warning). There is something problematic about the rose compass and world map as well. They are beautiful, but were gifted in 1960 by the government of South Africa, at a time when Apartheid was state policy there.