Portuguese architecture

Sé Velha Cathedral is Something Old While Sé Nova is Something “New”

At 900 years old, the Sé Velha cathedral is one of the oldest structures in modern-day Portugal. Likewise, Sé Nova is relatively new, being only 400 years old.

The city of Coimbra, Portugal, is chock-full of history. It has been a pleasure to get to know some of that history.

Take today, for example. A group I’m involved in, The Curious Knights of Coimbra, did an excursion to Sé Velha (old cathedral) and Sé Nova (new cathedral). Let me tell you about this fascinating history.

Sé Velha, formally known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Coimbra

The Cathedral

Sé Velha

The old cathedral dates from the 12th Century with the cloister added in the 13th Century. Although the cathedral was constructed in the Romanesque style, the cloister was the first Gothic construction in Portugal.

Sé Velha was the cathedral of the First Portuguese Dynasty, founded by D. Afonso Henriques in 1139. He was the first king of Portugal. At the time, Coimbra was the capital of Portugal (before it eventually moved to Lisbon).

Sé Velha main altar

Several tombs are inside the cathedral, including those of the first governor of Coimbra (D. Sesnando) after the city was reconquered from the Muslims in 1064; the Earl-Bishop of Coimbra and Viceroy of Portugal (D. Afonso de Castelo Branco); and the Byzantine Princess, Vataça Lascaris, among several others.

Portugal’s first Hispano-Arab tiles (aka Mudéjares) are in this building. Let me tell you, the tilework throughout the cathedral is exquisite, as are the many, many stone carvings.

Sé Velha side door and tiles

The Cloister

Upstairs from the sanctuary of the cathedral is the cloister. This is where monks and priests would meditate, study, and exercise. It is typically an open courtyard surrounded by covered walkways that connect various buildings.

Sé Velha cloister courtyard

There were a few tombs in the various rooms off of the walkway. Many pillars and arches support the covered walkway, creating places to sit and meditate in this peaceful place.

You can learn more about Sé Velha here.

Sé Nova facade

The Steep Transition from Old to New

After we left Sé Velha, it was time to climb to Sé Nova. Although the distance between the two cathedrals is a mere 300 meters, it’s all uphill. Steeply uphill. 

I’m definitely not a fit person, but I figured I could manage such a short distance. At first, I was the pace-setter for the group and I managed to get quite a distance in front. Eventually, though, I had to pause and catch my breath. Surprisingly, I only needed to stop 3 times but the group caught finally caught up with me.

Sé Nova altar

We finally made it to the top of the hill near the University of Coimbra. I wasn’t feeling so good by then, so I opted to go to a café while the rest of the group explored Sé Nova. I had already been inside that church several months ago, but I didn’t know then it was Sé Nova.

Sé Nova, also known as the Colégio das Onze Mil Virgens

Sé Nova wood carving

Sé Nova is the “new” cathedral. It was built on the University of Coimbra campus in the 1600s so it’s only 400 years old. At first, it was occupied by the Jesuits, until their expulsion from Portugal in 1759. Now, together with Sé Velha, the cathedrals form the seat of the Diocese of Coimbra. 

This cathedral is larger than Sé Velha; more people can fit inside for services. The lower part of the building is done in a Mannerist style while the upper part was completed in the Baroque style.

It pains me to say that I don’t have a clear memory of the inside of Sé Nova. It’s been five months since I was there. But I do have photos. As you can see, it is stunningly beautiful inside.


Contact Us if you have any questions or comments about this or any other blog post. We love to hear from our readers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *