The Convento São Francisco de Mértola is an Artist/Scientist-In-Residence housed in a historic 400-year-old Franciscan monastery. It is a fantastically well sited retreat, overlooking the Oeiras and Guadiana rivers on the outskirts of Mértola, in the southern province Alentejo, Portugal. The building still has archeological remains from its Roman and Moorish occupants.
The word convento derives from the Latin convenire, to gather, and here it is a gathering of life, art and nature. This is what the founders had in mind, a place where the senses are stimulated, concentration is possible and creativity vitalized. An achievement that took over 38 years of dedicated, ongoing work.
The architecture of the Convento is traditional with the use of natural materials that give a comforting feeling of community. In the adjacent chapel, which is now an art space, this feeling is very strong. History is felt here in one of its deepest meanings; the continuous work of men as a will to create art and architecture and to enjoy natural beauty. In the gardens and buildings we find traces of different civilizations that go back beyond Roman times.
The gardens of the Convento are a real joy for all the senses and a work of art in itself. The originally Islamic irrigation systems have been restored and the terraces were planted with a great variety of bio-dynamically grown aromatic and medicinal herbs, trees, vines etc.. All this with the deep conviction that ecology is not just something we do, but something we are part of. This is also reflected in the interesting bird population of the in total 40 hectares surrounding the Convento and in the shelter that has been set up for birds to recover. Philosophy is a praxis here that echoes a spiritual idea of nature that St. Francis once preached and wrote poems about.
The Convento thus offers an environment where tranquility is enjoyed in harmony with nature and wildlife, an ideal place for creativity and regeneration of the senses.
In 1980, a Dutch family, the Zwanikkens, came across the Convento and eventually purchased the buildings and its grounds. Over decades they have sensitively restored it- transforming the rotten landscape and crumbling chapel into a home, nature preserve, artist-in-residence and guest accommodation. Much of the space is open to the public on appointment , to share with the community and visitors who have special interests in nature, art and developing self-awareness skills.
District records from 400 years ago show that the Convento was built to house relics of the Cross of Christ and a fragment of his purple robe. From 1612 to 1834 it provided accommodation for an abbot and twelve monks adhering to the Franciscan religious code.
Far older than the Convento is an original chapel and a deep well on the grounds go back to Roman times.
At the highest outdoor point there is an archaic circular stone floor. Some speculate this could have been a place for threshing grain or may have held some spiritual significance. Designed as a radiating star, its mid-point marks the exact centre of the surrounding hills. An Iron Age wall forms a boundary between the summits of these uplands from where the site of the stone circle and later the Franciscan monastery, could have been seen.
Records from 1753 describe the Miracle of Mértola when a statue of St Anthony, housed inside the Convento’s church, was observed to cry. Witness statements contemporary to that time, were published in Lisbon providing testimony of the event.
After the disillusion of all religious orders in Portugal in 1834, the Convento fell into a state of disrepair and eventually dereliction.