Views and Cenotaphs: Lisbon’s Pantheon

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Church of Santa Engrácia, Igreja de Santa Engrácia, Lisbon, Portugal

There is an old joke in Portugal; if something is never completed, it’s like the Santa Engrácia works (Obras de Santa Engrácia).  The poor Santa Engrácia.  Construction started in 1681… and wasn’t finished until 1966.  That is quite an achievement in procrastination.

There is a legend explaining why the church was so long in being completed.  In 1630, the consecrated hosts, kept in the tabernacle, were stolen.  Young Simão Solis was accused of the crime, because he was seen prowling around the church, though he declared his innocence.  Legend says that he was visiting a young nun nearby, and so as not to cause problems for her, he didn’t explain why he’d been in the vicinity of the church.  But this was a period in which the Inquisition which had its own objectives, and he was a New Christian (a converted Jew) so he made a great scapegoat.  Simão was subjected to the most awful tortures and after his hands had been chopped off, he was burned at the stake.  It is said that he swore, “I’m innocent! It is as certain that I am innocent, as it is certain that those works never end!”

And that’s why the works never ended.

True story.

The original building was dedicated to a 4th century martyr from Braga, Saint Engrácia, by the daughter of Manuel I, Infanta Maria.  This first church was built in around 1568 by Nicolau de Frias, but it collapsed, so in 1681, construction of the current church began, overseen by the royal architect, João Antunes.  His death in 1712 saw the end of the first stage of building work.  The king of the time, João V, was more interested in channelling his money into the construction of the Convent of Mafra, so there was no backing for Santa Engrácia.

There was also the niggling doubt that the church would be able to support the massive dome that had been planned.  Architects were unwilling to join the project, and possible sources of finance were too scared to take the risk.  When religious orders were banned in 1834, and the military took over the building, a zinc dome was made so as to make the space usable as barracks, an armaments factory and a shoe workshop.

The building basically languished for 200 years until the 1910 Revolution.  The new regime thought it could gain brownie points by finishing the job that the nasty royals had failed to complete, and they began construction again.  The military stayed at the church until the 1930s, and it was in the 1950s that architects submitted proposals for finishing off the building in a fitting style.  In 1964, António de Oliveira Salazar, the country’s dictator, visited the monument, and wanted to hurry things along: he ordered it to be completed in two years, so that the inauguration would coincide with his regime’s 40th anniversary.

So, bizarrely, considering the extremely baroque appearance of the building, the sculptures are mainly from the 20th century: António Duarte was charged with the ones on the exterior of the church and Leopoldo de Almeida made the statues for the interior.  The whole of the interior was restored, and a concrete and stone dome replaced the zinc one.

In 1966, the Pantheon opened for business – and on schedule.

I bet Simão Solis is cross.

The church immediately became the national Pantheon, and the tombs of important Portuguese figures were moved there, including those of Portuguese presidents, writers, the popular fado singer Amália Rodrigues, and footballer Eusébio.  These tombs are in some smaller ‘tomb rooms’ in the corners and it was moving to see the continuing tributes to these much-loved figures.

There are also cenotaphs (monuments to people buried elsewhere) to various figures, including Luís de Camões and Vasco da Gama (both now in the St Mary Church in Belém).

The inside of the church is cavernous, regal and elegant.  The pink and white marbles make for an interesting colour combination – a bit bonbon-y.  A grand organ from Lisbon Cathedral sits against the front wall as you enter, a slightly incongruous dark and baroque addition to an otherwise pale and airy space.  The figures decorating the organ are awful pretty though.

However, one of the main reasons people visit the Pantheon is because of the views from the top of the dome.  There is no lift to the top, and there are a lot of steps.  A lot of steps.  They aren’t dizzying in themselves to climb, being like a regular, solid staircase, but that doesn’t stop it from being pretty tiring.

You get to stop off at various points to admire the view back into the church, which gives you some breathing-time.  Oh, and the views are pretty good.

The final reward for walking up those stairs is the most extraordinary view.  There is a wide platform which makes the experience of being so high up less daunting, and much easier to enjoy if you aren’t that keen on heights, like me.  The views are really amazing, showing off the strange levels the city is built on, and it’s possible to see along the Tagus River, which was rather lovely on the clear day we visited.

So In Summary

While the Pantheon is an attractive building, there isn’t really a lot to it.  Sure, it’s very impressive, but once you’ve admired the main space, the only way is up.  The views did make the visit worthwhile, and it was a nice spot to just relax and enjoy the weather, but I don’t know whether the Pantheon is a must visit on a short trip to Lisbon.

Further Information

There is a charge to enter the church, but it is included on Lisbon card for free.

A Portuguese only website is available, which is generally easy enough to navigate for opening hours etc. if you have basic knowledge of a Romance language:

There are some interesting photographs showing the construction work of the 1960s to be found here.

If you can, do try and time your trip to the Pantheon with a Saturday or Tuesday morning: this is when the surrounding streets are packed full of stalls of the formidable Feira da Ladra (translating a the thieves market) flea market.  They have a strange mixture of things which look stolen, to things which are really quite unique and expensive.  There also seemed to be a large amount of stall selling new items, sometimes clearly aimed at tourists.  Of course, the success of your day flea-marketing is going to depend on the day (and your taste – and budget), but it makes for an interesting browse.

View of the Feira da Ladra flea market, from the Church of St Engrácia (National Pantheon), Lisbon, Portugal

View of the Feira da Ladra flea market, from the Church of St Engrácia (National Pantheon), Lisbon, Portugal

How To Get There

Lisbon’s local transport is run by these people, and their site is English:

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