Reportedly housing one of, if not, the richest chapel in Europe, Igreja de Sao Roque is unassuming from the outside, in comparison to the other buildings around it, and the architecture of Portugal, the exterior of the church is plain and uninspiring. However, step inside and you are transported to another world. Another time. Another place.

The striking thing about the Sao Roque, almost immediately, is the solemnity that washes over you upon entry; it is in stark contrast with the opulence before your eyes. It takes a moment to sink in so take a deep breath before you explore. It is a gilded sensory explosion.

Igreja de Sao Roque, (The Church of Saint Roch) is one of Lisbon’s treasures because it holds significant religious artefacts of its patron saint, alongside its museum. Constructed and designed over a couple of centuries, it was one of the oldest Jesuit churches in the world; the oldest in Portugal. As a Jesuit denomination, one might struggle to understand why the arm of the church that is instinctively about humility, often seen as the more traditional and conservative sect of the catholic church, would house a place of worship with such ostentatiousness. Following their expulsion from Portugal in 1759, and the earthquake of 1755, where Sao Roque was one of the few buildings to survive relatively intact, the building and its museum was presented to the Santa Casa di Misericordia de Lisboa; the Lisbon Holy House of Charity as a replacement for their church which was destroyed in the earthquake. It remains part of the heritage of the Casa today.

This Jesuit stronghold for two hundred years- before being exiled by the Marquis of Pombal; Sebastian José de Carvalho and King Jose I, because of their growing influence in the country- is homage to Sao Roque, patron saint of dogs, bachelors, plague victims amongst others. Following the arrival of the plague from Italy in the 1500’s King Manuel I requested a relic of the saint from Venice to be sent to Portugal. Upon arrival in Lisbon, the relic was buried and enshrined on the burial site of plague victims; the location of Sao Roque, now the Bairro Alto district. The king hoped that having a relic of the Saint so near would protect the country from furtherance of the plague. It didn’t.

It did however give the country a truly spectacular church built by the Jesuit following their arrival on invitation of King John III. Though it would take them a while to complete it.

As earlier mentioned, the simplicity stops as soon as you walk through the unassuming doors. You might even be fooled upon entry by looking straight ahead of you at the altar because it is not much different to any other Catholic Church. Recessed behind two Corinthian columns is the chancel and its altars. In the centre of the chancel is the statue of Madonna and Child, flanked by statues of four important evangelists of the Jesuit order; Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit, along with Saints; Francis Xavier; co founder of the Jesuit, Aloysius Gonzaga and Francis Borgia. The church is a feat of baroque in its many iterations, and the trompe-l’œil mannerist nave is a stunning work of art that would rival any chapel in St Peter’s. with a faux barrel vault style. But look down too, because beneath your feet is not just ordinary flooring it is another piece of art; inlaid marble in mosaic. Yes, I believe stupendous is the word you are looking for, and it is. In every sense of the word.

We are just getting started; the real show stoppers here are the side chapels. Heavily gilded and ornately decorated with some of the finest materials known to man. There are eight in total;

  • Our Lady of the Doctrine
  • St Francis Xavier
  • St Roch
  • Holy Sacrament
  • Holy Family
  • St Anthony
  • Our Lady of Piety
  • St John the Baptist

The chapel of St John the Baptist is the reason I had to make pilgrimage to this church, it is the most widely talked about and star attraction; though looking at the other chapels it looks a lot tamer but looks have often been known to be deceptive. Saint John also happens to be my favourite saint.

Capela de Sao Joao Baptista, is or was rumoured to be the most expensive chapel in Europe and that sentiment in itself can be quite controversial. Much like the rest of Sao Roque and the history of the Jesuit. Heavily influenced by King John V, the chapel is constructed using only the most expensive materials; agate, lapis, gold, silver, bronze, Carrara marble… It was assembled in the church of Sant’Antonio de Portoghesi, in Rome, under the direction of Luigi Vanvitelli, who restored the dome of St Peter’s Basilica and Nicola Salvi, his mentor, with whom he constructed the Trevi Fountain. This was the earliest adaptation of the rococo style in Portugal. Construction lasted five years; 1742-1747. In 1744, Pope Benedict XIV, consecrated it and said mass at the alter on completion in May of 1747 before it was dismantled and shipped in three vessels to Lisbon in September of that year.

Recessed behind grand arches, the iconographic programme for the chapel depicts the areas of intersections in John the Baptist’ life: the Holy Spirit, Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist, which unfold on the altar in the chapel, the mosaics depicting the Baptism of Christ in the centre, the Annunciation in the presence of Cherubs to the right and the Pentecost to the left, and the oval medallions on either ends of the ceiling which shows John preaching and the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John; these are pivotal moments in the lift of the Saint so intricately and majestically depicted using various methods of art and carving. The flooring is also painted vitreous mosaic, about a millimetre bigger than the side and centre mosaics; an armillary sphere in gold set against a blue background, within a circle of flowers. On closer inspection you can appreciate the way in which aged mosaics have bee placed alongside newer mosaic to give it that weathered yet lively look. One can safely say this is the presence of Italy in Portugal. More specifically, it can be said that this is the presence of the world in Portugal because of the many parts that make up this chapel.

Forty minutes down the road from Sao Roque is a church whose construction is almost the opposite of Sao Roque in the sense that its exterior is ornate and elaborate and the interior simple, austere at times and well… simple. Looking at the exterior of the church and the monastery… I cannot help but wonder if Gaudi was influenced by the construction? The outer part of this building has carved on it, in half relief stages of St Jerome’s life, parts of the glorious mysteries; Annunciation and Nativity laced in with nobility of Portugal, cherubs, angels and its patron stains, Jerome and John. Was he? Maybe? May be not when it comes to the nobility part but then again Sagrada is still being constructed so who knows… in any case the church of Santa Maria de Belem is worth the short hop from Lisbon.

The hall style church with its aisles and nave of the same height is a lesson in the Manueline, late gothic style of architecture typified by Manuel I who is buried there with his wife Maria of Aragon. Igreja Santa Maria de Belem is the adjoining church of the Jeronimos Monastery, in Belem. The church’s architecture straddled both the gothic and early renaissance eras. For the most part here, the monastery especially her cloisters, are the reason why most visit Belem, this is an architectural beautiful masterpiece to walk through but the church is even more sublime, in my opinion. The simplicity enshrined in such a stunning and elaborate outer building is breath taking. It almost feels as if the church is not finished with its exposed walls and simple floors. The stained windows flanking the sides are rather high up and don’t let a lot of light in making it even more ascetic if the brick walls were not enough. But look up at the ornate carved ceiling and the roping up the columns guiding the eyes to the centre and be mindful of losing your breathe and being a little light headed at the sheer majesty of it. The ceiling is high, unnaturally so it feels, and goes into a vault with ornately carved columns that spread all across it. The altar is a classic convergence of gold and marble that is both complimentary and a palate cleanser of the Sao Roque.

As a student of history, I was less interested in the tomb of Vasco da Gama having studied the aftermath of his explorations and exploitations that enriched portugal, but it shouldn’t go without a mention that he is interred here.

If you can, and you absolutely should, do not miss the sacristy for a minuscule fee; the ceilings are low enough to view the columns up close, the central one connected to the out columns which are all connected by the carvings in the ceiling.

IGREJA DE SAO ROQUE: Largo Trindade Coelho, Lisbon | IGREJA SANTA MARIA DE BELEM Praca do Imperio Lisbon 1300 Portugal

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