Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Henry the Navigator, Grand Master of the Order of Christ

Prince Henry the Navigator, Grand Master of the Order of Christ. (Source.)

The Menology frequently gives me a religious connection to some historical figure of which I was previously unaware. For today it is Prince Henry the Navigator, whose entry I first stumbled across a couple of years ago:

In Spain, Blessed Henry of Portugal, Grand Master of the Cistercian Order of Christ, who, as he preserved unsullied the flower of virginity, died in the odour of sanctity. The whole world is indebted to him for his great nautical discoveries on the southern coast of Africa, in 1420, with the special intention of propagating the true Faith there.

The three left sections of the St. Vincent Panels, showing Prince Henry
at the far right and Cistercians in cowl at the far left. (Source.)

Henry was the fourth son of King John I of Portugal by Queen Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt. In 1420, he was appointed Grand Master of the Order of Christ, the successor body to the Knights Templar in Portugal, which was one of several military orders affiliated to the Cistercians. Fueled by his desires for the propagation of the faith, for exploration and conquest, for trade, and to make contact with the kingdom of the legendary Prester John, Prince Henry put the extensive resources of his Order into the service of his expeditions. In turn, he greatly expanded and beautified the Order's principal complexes. In "Crónica da Guiné" Henry is described as having no luxuries, not avaricious, speaking with soft words and calm gestures, a man of many virtues who never allowed any poor person leave his presence empty-handed.

Scholars debate many points of the life of this most complex man. While conceding his role in the development of the caravel and that he employed a number of skilled cartographers, they disagree on the extent to which he actually founded a school for navigation and cartography. While crediting him with sponsoring the voyages that discovered numerous islands and mapped the coast of Africa, they rightly point out that this was the beginning of the African slave trade in Europe.

Prince Henry's Tomb. (Source.)

Other members of the Order of Christ in the Age of Exploration include Vasco de Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, and Ferdinand Magellan. Henry’s younger brother, Bl. Ferdinand, was Grand Master of the Order of Aviz, another Cistercian filiation.