The history of Funchal Cathedral

There are a few more excellent beaches that are worth a mention, such as those found in the town of Machico, which is about a 20 minute drive east of Funchal. The natural secluded beauty of Prainha, which is further east, is also quite breath-taking. Prainha is another beach that has greyish dark sand, but is unfortunately not very good for swimming during the winter unless you’re a particularly strong swimmer.

Madeira’s beaches are nicely varied, and really do offer something for everyone. The islands’ inhabitants may have chosen to create their own sandy beaches in places, but both Madeira’s natural and man made waterfronts are up there with the world’s best, and easily comparable to other famed seaside destinations such as Gran Canaria and Tenerife.

The best way to discover Funchal is by foot, utilising the traditional Portuguese stone sidewalks that meander through the city. From the Old Town to the Farmers Market, you’ll be amazed at the sheer range of fascinating sights and experiences on offer. From Madeiran wine cellars and beautiful gardens, to the modest restaurants serving fine local cuisine, there seems to be something fascinating around every corner.

There is one sight in particular; though, that is purely emblematic of life in Funchal, and that is the magnificent Sé Catedral de Nossa Senhora da Assunçâo (known as Sé, or The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption).

This late fifteenth-century cathedral is a one of the few structures that have remained intact since the early colonisation of Madeira, and its history is one of adoption and influence of various beliefs and cultures.

The History of Funchal Cathedral 

Construction on Funchal Cathedral began around 1493, which is not long after Portuguese colonists first arrived on the island. The work was started by order of King Manuel I, on the land that he had already donated to the Church. The reign of King Manuel I is synonymous with a period of great achievement and advancement in both politics and art for the country of Portugal. Despite the relatively small size and population of Portugal at the time, it still amassed a large overseas empire, with many people considering King Manuel I to be instrumental in this prosperity.

During the 1490’s, Manuel I sent the architects Péro Anes and Gil Enes to work on the design and detail of the cathedral. The interior is richly ornamented in what’s known as the ‘Manueline’ style – named after the King himself - which combines artistic touches and motifs of Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and Flemish design.

The cathedral was completed in 1514, with other details such as the bell tower and the spire being completed a few years afterwards. Bishop Duarte officially consecrated the cathedral in 1517.

Key Features of Sé Cathedral 

The cathedral’s altarpiece is of significant historical, architectural and artistic value, and was ordered to be created by King Manuel I in 1510-1515. The altarpiece features a Gothic canopy that comprises gilt woodwork, sculptures and oil paintings. This piece is considered so valuable due to the intricate, and highly technical quality of execution, as well as the fact that it is the only Manueline altarpiece that remains entirely in its place of origin.

The interior of the cathedral as a whole features a blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles and is hugely impressive. There are countless works of art, and beautifully crafted woodworks on display, but one thing that is sure to grab your attention is one of Portugal’s most beautiful ceilings. Made from the local wood of Madeira, and adorned with ivory inlays, the geometric and animal designs have their origin from the Christianised Moors of the Iberian Penninsula, and are just as historically fascinating as they are visually striking.

A beautiful archway frames the opening to the Chancel, and there are many works of handmade art. The backs of most of the chairs there are decorated with images of the apostles and prophets, and were crafted to the smallest detail with influence from the Middle Ages.

The Cathedral today

Since 1955, a number of artworks that were donated by Manuel I (referred to as the “Treasures of the Cathedral”) are currently on display at the Museum of Sacred art, and include pieces such as the baptismal fountain, the pulpit, and the altar. There is also a magnificent processional cross that is considered to be a masterpiece of Portuguese Manueline goldsmithery. 

The cathedral was classified as a National Monument in 1910, and constitutes the main religious building of the entire Madeiran archipelago. The site is well attended by the local people of Funchal, as well as by curious tourists throughout the year.

A visit to Funchal isn’t complete without taking a little time to discover its wonderful cathedral, so be sure to make a pilgrimage of your own when exploring the beautiful city. In visiting this fascinating site, you’ll be discovering not only Madeiran history, but also that of Portugal, and one of its fascinating rulers - the hugely important Manuel the first.