Main Index

Some churches in Lisbon

Well the main object of the trip this time was not the churches in the capital of Portugal, but the European Cup Final between Portugal and Greece. A veritable new "cathedral" graced the northern part of Lisbon at Benfica, whereas the old "cathedral" alongside has been turned into a shopping mall. The Greeks won 1-0 and we stayed with them in the Rossio, more correctly Praca Dom Pedro IV - Lisbon's equivalent of Trafalgar Square, until 3am!

The character of the city dates largely from post 1755 when a huge earthquake devastated the city. The main Commercial area was rebuilt with a grid plan leading up from the harbour. West and east of here are two uphill areas which preserve the narrow street plans of the medieval town.

The first church had to wait until the Monday morning when I managed to crawl round to Lisbon's largest church, Sao Domingos, which is situated behind the Rossio, the facade rising above the shops in the square. Only the east end with a small tower and the west facade are visible, and most of the external decoration is reserved for the facade.

For my first church, the interior came as a shock. I assumed the church was rebuilt after 1755, a vast classical broad nave with narrow transepts and a narrower chancel, a plan which was typical of the churches I was to see later in the day. But here was grey split and shattered stone, of former finery, a near lack of statues, furniture and paintings, and over all a vast pink barrel vaulted ceiling with transverse arches and groining over the crossing. So was this earthquake damage to a pre-1755 building I was seeing or was there as I suspected another story? On my return home the mystery was solved as my german "Knaurs Kulturfuehrer" volume for Portugal mentions another rebuilding after a fire in 1959.
For my next church I had to climb up several flights of steps, and streets which were steps -where no car is safe to go! Sao Roque is a church which largely survived the earthquake; the old facade and western part of the nave had to be rebuilt but the rest is a notable structure of the later C16. Many of the side chapels were added through the C17 and C18, and again some were also damaged but restored. One (St John Baptist, easternmost chapel on the north side) was made in Italy, blessed by the Pope and then shipped for installation here at Sao Roque.

Another chapel on the north side (above right) has countless cherubs amongst its carvings, which also include a figure of Veronica holding a veil on which is an image of the head of Christ*. The chapel of Our Lady of the Doctrine(?) first chapel on the south side is early C17 and in the "Lagos" style, every surface carved and gilded. Over the entire nave is a vast painted ceiling with typical trompe l'oeil scene, largely pre-1755 and apparently typical of the area, but Lisbon's best example. I had taken some five pictures with flash before being told off - on the way out I saw the small notice "No Flash" I had missed on the way in!

Staying up high I made my way to Nossa Senhora do Carmo, now part of the National Museum of Antiquities. this large Gothic church overlooks the Rossio square, and has remained a ruin since 1755. Time was against me as I had arranged to meet Mike in Rossio, and therefore I stroked the cute cat guarding the lady in the kiosk (where you pay to go in) and decided to give it a miss until later (which meant never in the end).
With Mike in tow I set off to see the Sé or cathedral. Luckily (for me anyway) we passed two more churches en route. La Madelena is another classical church presumably post 1755. It has a short lofty wide nave and narrower chancel with small side chapels. I liked this one and found the chancel to be especially handsome. This was also the first church which had a tower as part of its facade, albeit small.
With the cathedral in sight, there was also Santo Antonio da Sé to be visited beforehand. Unknown to me St Anthony of Padua is the unofficial patron saint of Portugal (they officially have St George I believe), and also unknown to me he was born here and not in Italy. The church dates from 1757-1812 and is not large. It has a central octagonal lantern tower (treated like a dome inside) with nave and chancel. It was also in reverential use, so I resisted using flash until the last shot!
I don't think anyone would call Lisbon cathedral beautiful. It is full of interest and has undergone many alterations and rebuildings, including restoration after the earthquake which badly damaged it, and the last one in the 1930s when much of the baroque casing was stripped from all but the choir to return it to the "original" Romanesque style. It is so returned that it is hard to see what is original, if indeed very much is.

So we have a dark gloomy Romanesque nave and aisles and a brighter choir. In the latter ornate organ cases, some pipes treated like a group of horns of differing sizes. Around the encased choir is a Gothic ambulatory and chevet, and to the east of this are the cathedral cloisters. Some marvellous tombs and effigies are preserved here, in the chevet and in the small Gothic NW chapel. In the cloister garth foundations of previous buildings from Roman and Iron-age times are exposed, together with "Islamic" walling - which for some reason is rose-coloured and becasue of this the whole area is covered in scaffolding and plastic sheeting, making no appreciation of the cathedral's east end possible.


We hopped on a tram, the No 28, to cross again to the other hillside and the chief shopping area where two churches face each other across the street, with a third just down the road. The neighbours were both locked so I first explored the Basilica of Holy Martyrs (below) in Rua Garrett. This church seems to be missing from the guidebooks (and also the city map!). Another typical church, with whitestone facade, and pretty yellow side walls. Inside broad nave with lower narrower chancel. There are also some side chapels on the north side but blank recesses on the south. On the west gallery a very ornate organ case.


Hunger and thirst took over and next we sat in the street for a good lunch and fluid replenishment! By the time this was over the "twin" churches had both opened their doors! Hurrah!

On the south side of the small square was (Nossa Senhora do) Encarnacao with an impressive facade and interior. The side walls are built up to incorporate the clerestory and the windows internally are lit from the windows in the outside wall. The main ceiling is beautifully detailed with trompe l'oeil architectural detail and a wonderful central fresco. The chancel roof is groined in the shape of a greek cross with much use of dark colours to give an added atmosphere, and the painting is among the best in Lisbon. There is also a finely detiled octagonal NE chapel with plaster ceiling with diverse beasts and strapwork-like patterning.
The church opposite is the church of (Nossa Senhora do) Loreto. This church incorporates much of the pre-1755 church and has a different lighter feel to the classical detailing with little balustraded stairs up to the west and north doorways. The interior is broad and with a narrower lower chancel. There is a wonderful fresco on the ornate ceiling and two pulpits, one centrally placed on each side wall.
We walked from here downhill towards the Basilica of Estréla, our ultimate goal. We followed the route of the Tram 28 and found another church of Santa Caterina. The twin towered facade is extremely deep with an open vestibule below and a gallery above. The church dates from c1650, restored after the earthquake and reopened in 1757. Cruciform interior undergoing painstaking restoration in the choir and sanctuary. The crossing and transepts have been completed and the light bright deccoration here is in stark contrast to the gloomier nave. Another very ornate organ case in the SW corner of the nave - at clerestory level, and the width of two bays.
As we emerged we hopped on another No28 which took us direct to the basilica of Estréla. It was built 1779-90 as a thanks offering for the birth of the queens first son, who died before the basilica (Sacred Heart) was completed. The queen lies in the south transept, having died in Brazil, and her body brought back to Lisbon a couple of years later.
(The guidebook states that something went wrong with the embalming process and when the coffin was opened for transfer into the tomb many ladies feinted from the shocking sight and smell!). I found the building rather cold, big to impress, and certainly better from outside from afar with its central dome and twin west towers. Up close the large statues are poorly executed. Inside the dome is open into the church.

We then returned staying on the full route of the No28 back to our hotel. Mike was pickpocketed to the tune of 150 Euros and I lost two Smart Media cards (16MB and 32MB) probably to the same thief from the front pocket of my bag. Luckily these had not been used and the passport which had been in here earlier I had transferred into the main part of the bag.

The No 28 tram passed Santo Antonio da Sé with the cathedral in the background

*Thanks to Liam for correcting this information

page updated 1st September 2005