The Old Cathedral, or Se Velha, is a must-see for any visitor to Coimbra, Portugal. Located in the upper area of the city, amongst the steep narrow streets and university complex, the Old Cathedral dates back to the reign of King Afonso Henriques and is built in Romanesque style that is prevalent in much of Portugal’s architecture of the time.
The cathedral was built during the second half of the 12th century and was consecrated in 1184. The Old Cathedral is one of the most important Romanesque churches in Portugal. Its construction at the instigation of King Afonso Henriques was to mark his declaration of himself as the King of Portugal, following his victory in the battle of Ourique in 1139, and his choice of Coimbra as his capital.
It was designed by the French architects, Robert and Bernardo, as well as the Portuguese master, Soeiro. The overall design shows signs of Islamic influence combined with the obvious Romanesque style, and there are also significant Gothic touches such as the cloisters and the high altar.
The construction of the building resembles a castle, which was a popular style at the time of the Reconquest, as these cathedrals were built in the line of defence against the Moors. It is built in a symmetrical style with narrow windows and crenelated roof.
A grand, main doorway juts out from the façade and shows particular Islamic influence in its styling. It is adorned with columned arches with successively smaller diameters, each delicately ornamented, and above the centre of the door is a balcony, also adorned with columns.
A second side door is known as the Porta Especiosa, or the Beautiful Door, thanks to its elegant Renaissance-style decoration. Built in the 1530s by Joao de Ruao, it sits a full three-story high and is one of the leading examples of Renaissance design in Portugal.
The cathedral footprint is that of a Latin cross, with three naves, the middle one of which is covered with a vault and an arcaded gallery on the second floor. A Gothic lantern takes pride of place at the crossing, whose windows, along with the window of the main façade, are the primary sources of light for the cathedral. The capitals of all the interior columns are decorated with designs of a geometric, plant or animal theme.
One of the focal points of the interior is the main altarpiece, which is made of gilded and polychrome wood in Gothic style by the masters Olivier de Gante and Jean de Ypres. Completed in 1503, it has survived for more than 500 years in a perfect state of preservation.
A visit to the cathedral is completed with a visit to the Chapel of the Sacred Sacrament, which was restored in the 16th century following the Mannerist style of the time, by Joao de Ruao, who was also responsible for the lovely Porta Especiosa.
The Old Cathedral is located on Largo da Se Velha, in Coimbra’s old town, and is open for visitors daily from 10am to 6pm, with limited visits during services.