After crossing the reception of the Museu de Alberto Sampaio, the visitor enters a beautiful medieval cloister that belonged to the Colegiada de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira and that became a museological space since 1928, when the Museum was created.
Its irregular shape, surrounding the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, turns it into a unique specimen in Portuguese medieval architecture, though intriguing as far as its transformations throughout the centuries are concerned.
As it is formed by a sequence of semicircular arches that suggest the Romanesque style, some historians considered it as a work of the 13th century and it was labelled as “Romanesque”, “late-Romanesque” or even “Romanesque-Gothic”. The recent study by Professor Doctor Lúcia Rosas, full professor at the Faculdade de Letras of Oporto, sets aside these traditional theses and defends that the medieval structure has not arrived in its original configuration, having been reformed in the 16th century, during the priorship of Dom Diogo Pinheiro, whose coat of arms is sculpted in a voussoir of an arch in the southwest corner of the cloister. Lúcia Rosas, however, calls attention to the existence of pieces reused and others that copy Romanesque elements belonging to the previous cloister.
Besides this 16th-century reform, there’s another one in the 17th century when the apse of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira was extended.
The present cloister is formed by a sequence of semicircular arches resting on columns, whose capitals are decorated with foliage, simple scrolls or with pearls and small human faces. The forty-two capitals are all different and some of them were redone when the cloister was restored between 1928/ 31.
The galleries communicate with the garden by passages opened into the stylobates on which the columns rest, some of which decorated with vine leaves. On these walls, one can find the engraved boards for playing Alquerque (alquerque of 12 and of 3), as well as some religious representations: a monstrance and a small chapel.
In 1911, the Colegiada de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira was extinguished and, from that moment on, the cloister was abandoned. In 1928, Alfredo Guimarães was nominated director of the Museum and it was him who headed a campaign aiming at sensitising and mobilising the Guimarães inhabitants to save and restore the cloister. Photographs of the time show students parading through the city with posters where one could read: “People of Guimarães save the cloister of your Collegiate Church”.
The works to adapt it to a museum began in 1929 and ended in 1931. The restoration works were supervised by Alfredo Guimarães and their purpose was to return the cloister to “its original artistic appearance”. Some columns were remade at the time as well as some capitals. The cornice and the corbelling were replaced and the stucco covering was substituted by the current wood. The beautiful wrought iron gate, which gives access to the Praça da Oliveira, was ordered to be made at that time.
The Museum opened its doors to the public in 1931 and the entire collection of religious art was exhibited in this cloister and in the adjacent rooms, which nowadays correspond to Saint Clare’s Room, to the Woodcarving Room and to the Chapter Room. Only in the 1960s did the Museum expand to other spaces, namely the House of the Dom Prior and the House of the Chapter.
It is in this cloister that the lithic collection of the Museum can be found, that is to say, the pieces made of stone, such as the coats of arms, the holy water fonts, the capitals and the tombstones. One can also see some sculptures.
In this space, one can highlight the only chapel entailed to the Collegiate Church that still remains, the tumular chapel of Saint Blaise. It is a Gothic construction with an ogival arch at the entrance and ogival crossed vaults. It was founded in the 15th century by Álvaro Gonçalves de Freitas, Superintendent of the exchequer of Dom João I, and, in its interior, there are the tombs of the founder and of his wife, Beringela Gil, both with the respective recumbent statues. Two other anthropomorphic tombs, found in the subsoil of the chapter when it was restored, are exhibited there and display their tumular function.
When going through the Cloister, one also finds in an arcossolium the 15th-century Gothic tomb of Afonso Vieira and, further ahead, the emblazoned tombs of the Freitas do Amaral with inscriptions dating from the 16th and 18th centuries. There’s also the 16th-century tomb, with recumbent statue, of Manuel de Valadares.
The door of the chapter room is framed by a Moorish arch and Romanesque capitals decorated with two animals facing each other and devouring an indeterminate prey. It might be an allusion to the fight between good and evil.
In the garden there’s the bust of the founder and first director of the Museu de Alberto Sampaio, Alfredo Guimarães.
During summer months, in July and August, the cloister is open until midnight, every day except on Mondays, and a new art exhibition is displayed there.