I Sé – Browsing Round Lisbon’s Cathedral

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Lisbon Cathedral, Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa (Patriarchal Cathedral of St Mary Major), Lisbon, Portugal

Most cathedrals that I have visited have fairly grand entrances – there’s a bit of a square or a space where you can stand and be in awe of the majesty of the place.  Lisbon doesn’t go for that.  You sort of creep up on it.  Round the Church of St Anthony.  Past traffic.  Even from the outside you can tell it’s possibly the most humble cathedral ever, and when you go in, that opinion doesn’t change much.

The Lisbon Cathedral is often called simply Sé, a name derived from the initials of Sedes Episcopalis or bishop’s seat.  With its origins in the 12th century, it has undergone a range of modifications over the centuries that has given the Sé its present, quite eclectic, appearance. 

The building work started in 1147, the year that King Afonso Henriques, with a motley crew of crusaders, conquered Lisbon from the Moors.  As a sign of the new Christian dominance, the cathedral was built on the site of what had been the main mosque of Lisbon.  One of Afonso Henriques’ supporters, an English crusader called Gilbert of Hastings, became the city’s bishop.

There are remnants from this original, Romanesque period including the main portal and the nave.  Afonso IV had the original apse replaced by a Gothic main chapel, surrounded by an ambulatory and radiating chapels.  Though the main chapel was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, the ambulatory survived, and is regarded as an important example of Portuguese Gothic art.  There are also three amazing tombs from the 14th century, but more of that later.

The relics of Lisbon’s patron saint, St Vincent of Saragossa, were brought to the city from southern Portugal in the early 13th century.  They were placed in the St Vincent chapel of the ambulatory, where the famous St Vincent Panels, by Nuno Gonçalves, were displayed until the 18th century.  The panels are now in the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon.

Lisbon’s most devastating earthquake in 1755 destroyed a lot of the cathedral, from the main chapel to the cloisters.  The roof collapsed and killed those who were attending a service.  The cathedral was then rebuilt in the neo-classical style, although many of these additions were removed at the beginning of the 20th century to make the cathedral look more medieval.

The result is sort of medieval and definitely interesting.  It’s not a big cathedral, and the architectural contrasts are therefore especially striking: the building basically has a Romanesque appearance, with plain, stark architecture – and then there’s a very dainty neo-classical apse.  It’s like some eager architect constructed a free-standing baroque church down there.  The dramatic difference in style is highlighted by massive amount of light that floods into the altar, in contrast with the nave.

St Anthony of Padua

Fernando Martins de Bulhões was born in Lisbon in 1195, the eldest son of a well-to-do family.  He received his education in the cathedral school, which was just a minute’s walk from his (supposed) home (now the St Anthony Church).  He joined the Franciscan Order and adopted the name Anthony.  His preaching and tales of his miracles made him exceedingly popular, and just a year after his death at the age of 35 in the Italian city of Padua, he was made a saint.

St Anne Chapel

I think the contents of this chapel were originally in the chapel off the ambulatory.  Anyway, it’s extremely ornate, rather like those in some of the heavy baroque churches I saw in Seville.  It would have been nice to get closer to see the paintings and the workmanship, but a glass door separated us.  Anyway, you get to peer at some lovely 18th century liturgical objects, including some very sparkly mitres.
On an utterly flippant note, I’d love a dress made out of the fabric of that mantle.

St Bartholomew Chapel and the Baptistry

Again, it was a shame that we had to peer into this area from a distance – especially since the paintings looked really interesting.  I gather they show the Martyrdom of St Bartholomew as well as scenes from the life of Jesus.  It was easier to make out the scene of the Last Supper, very effectively broken up into three panels.  I believe the panels are by Garcia Fernandes and Cristovao de Figueiredo, who also worked together on some other panels for Portuguese churches.

Also, we saw the back the head of the early 14th century tomb of Bartolomeu Joanes, a local merchant.

My images from the little baptistry look rather like they were taken in some dodgy toilets, but in real life I can assure you that it didn’t feel like that.  The tiles are really charming, with the scene of the Baptism of Jesus on one side, and St Anthony preaching to the fishes on the other.  Since Anthony was a local boy, who could well have been baptised here, it’s particularly cool.

The Ambulatory

The Ambulatory is one of the oldest parts of the cathedral, so it makes sense to visit this section, even though you do have to pay a fee.  This also covers entry to the Treasury upstairs and the cloisters – which annoyingly were closed when we went.

A word to the wise: don’t try and sneak past the man on the desk – we heard a few people getting told off in stern Portuguese.  You buy a ticket, or you don’t go in.

 To the Treasury and Treasury

Once you’ve bought/shown your ticket, you can clamber up some stairs to get to the really fantastic little museum of ecclesiastical objects, as well as a platform which gives you a view over the cathedral.  On the way up, on the wall of the staircase, there’s a grille covering a cross.  This is the spot where young Fernando Martins de Bulhões met the devil on his way to the cathedral school.  The devil tried to tempt him, but Fernando just repelled him by making the sign of the cross – which then got engraved into the wall.

No photography was allowed in the treasury, which is a real shame because they had some amazing items.  There are some reliquaries, including of/for St Vincent, beautifully embroidered liturgical clothes, stunning statues…

One of the most moving objects for me, though was a little ivory crucifix that had been made for St Francis Xavier when he was out in India.  I love knowing that something within touching distance belonged to a historical figure, and it is even more lovely when it’s such a personal item.

Just off the main gallery is the Room of the Chapter, a cute rococo room with blue and white tiles showing hunting scenes, some religious paintings and a decorated ceiling by Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho.  The throne and two massive fans made of feathers make the room look extremely decadent.

So In Summary

I’ve seen that quite a few people are down on the cathedral in online reviews – but it’s usually when they compare it to ‘great’ cathedrals.  If you compare Lisbon Cathedral to Notre Dame in Paris – you’re going to be disappointed, clearly.  That doesn’t mean that that the Sé isn’t worth visiting.  It’s charming, and if you visit the ambulatory and the treasury, the experience is considerably enhanced.
For me, one of the great curiosities of the Sé is the fact that the main part of the building is so small.  The fact that as Portugal’s power grew and its wealth grew, money went to new projects rather than to substantially enlarging the home of the patron saint’s relics is very interesting.

Further Information

Various guidebooks etc say that you only pay to visit the cloisters and the treasury, which is inaccurate – you have to pay for the ambulatory as well.

The Sé has its own website, but it’s only in Portuguese, and is anyway more concerned with the religious work of the cathedral than the needs of tourists:  www.patriarcado-lisboa.pt

How To Get There

The cathedral is served by the infamous 28 tram that trundles through the old streets of Lisbon.  These are always packed and I’ve read about pickpockets, so I avoided that route and decided to walk instead.  The Lisbon transport provider has its own website, which is helpfully in English: www.carris.pt






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