The princess who wouldn’t be queen

Few countries have a history as rich as Portugal’s, even fewer are home to such unique cultural traditions. A superpower in the 15th and 16th centuries – thanks to the wealth brought by colonies around the world – Portugal erected some of the most magnificent palaces, churches and monasteries of Europe. The Portuguese people also have the oldest nation-state in Europe – with the same borders for over 800 years – and speak the same language throughout the country.
Birthplace of the first navigators, brave sailors who first explored the African coast and crossed the Atlantic to discover the new world, Portugal also dominated the lucrative spice and slave trades for centuries. That era is long gone, but its legacy and riches will forever be part of the country’s heritage.
Convent of Jesus
Convent of Jesus, a Baroque masterpiece in Portugal

As is Catholicism. In Portugal, churches are full of people praying, not only taking pictures. In the 16th-century, the Catholic Church was as powerful as the monarchy, and together they created one of the country’s most beautiful stories: that of a royal princess named Joana. She was the daughter of King Afonso V and heir to the throne, until her brother was born. Against her father’s wishes, and with vehement protest from the royal court, Joana decided she wanted to be a Carmelite nun. It was a scandal – everybody was against it!
The princess was said to be very beautiful, ‘tall and straight’, according to tales of the time. She had a shapely mouth and full lips, something not common in the thin-lipped royal houses of Europe then. By the age of 17 she had already refused to marry two princes who were heirs to their thrones – of France and of England, no less. Her ambitious brother wanted her to be a queen, but his efforts failed each and every time he tried. Joana’s religious vocation had been clear since she was a child: pious and devoted, she was usually found praying in her room, rather than in the elegant balls of the court.

aveiro
Aveiro

 

The sincerity of Joana’s pledges finally won over her father’s wishes, and he agreed to let her follow her heart. Joana then chose humble Aveiro, a small fishermen’s town, to be her home. Through her time there, at the Convent of Jesus, her presence would bring the economic and cultural development Aveiro so needed.
She lived there for the last 18 years of her life, until she died at 38. Dedicated to charity and to the poor, just just like all the other nuns, many miracles were attributed to her, especially of infertile women becoming pregnant after contact with her. In 1693, the Vatican beatified her as Saint Joana, and since then she has been the patron saint of Aveiro.

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Princess and Saint Joana of Portugal

 

Joana’s dear Convent of Jesus was closed in 1874, when the last nun died. It is now the Museum of Aveiro, which houses an 18th-century church considered a masterpiece of Baroque art: its elaborate gilded-wood carvings and ceilings are among Portugal’s finest. Joana’s multi-colored inlaid-marble sarcophagus, in the lower choir, is also a piece of beauty that is not to be missed. Same for the nuns’ former refectory – with walls lined with magnificent camellia-motif tiles – one of the most impressive in the country.
But the main attraction of this rich museum is a particularly fine 16th-century portrait of Joana, a royal princess of exquisite beauty. By refusing to be a queen, she became one of the most beloved figures in her country’s history.

Click here to see my Top Picks in Aveiro

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