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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of Igreja de São Domingos in Lisbon

What is Igreja de São Domingos?

Igreja de São Domingos, or Church of St. Dominic in English, is a church that was founded in the 13th century that has witnessed some of the most joyful moments in Lisbon’s history, as well as some of the darkest.

Igreja de São Domingos

Igreja de São Domingos History

Although the construction of the Church of São Domingos (or Saint Dominic) began in 1241, today’s edifice is the result of many subsequent architectural revisions – so many that it bears only a distant resemblance to what was originally envisaged. The most recent additions date from 1748, seven years before the great earthquake. They’re the work of architect João Frederico Ludovice, who restored the chancel (the space reserved for the clergy and choir); by a happy turn of fortune, they survived the natural disaster that shook the Portuguese capital. Not all of the church was as lucky, however, and after the quake the church was rebuilt in Baroque style by royal architect Manuel Caetano de Sousa, under the direction of Carlos Mardel. Although in 1959 the church suffered a fire that stripped the interior of much of its fine detail, you can still see important parts of its original form, such as the imposing but damaged columns and colourful marbles.

The interior of the church, which was at one point the largest in Lisbon, comprises a single nave (where the congregation sit) flanked by multiple side altars, with double columns topped by platforms and windows. The vibrant ceiling is a false cradle vault, designed to complement the building’s grand and airy aesthetic, and is decorated in manganese and ochre. The crypt is also vaulted and holds the tomb of João de Castro, Viceroy of India, which was colonised, in part, by Portugal before the British Raj. He was a renowned Portuguese cartographer, navigator and commander who lived at the beginning of the 16th century. Also buried there is Spanish writer Friar Luis de Granada, who spent almost 40 years in Portugal until his death in 1588, at the grand old age of 84.

During the 19th century, the church witnessed three royal weddings. The first was between King Peter V the Hopeful and Queen Stephanie in 1858; their colourful reign witnessed the beginning of Portugal’s Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the steam train, and they lent their support to a public health campaign against typhoid fever. The second wedding, in 1862, united King Luís I and Queen Maria Pia of Savoy. Luís excelled as a cellist and navigator, and consistently enjoyed his subjects’ adoration – hence his historical epithet, ‘the Popular’. Finally, Carlos I, Luís’s son, married here in the São Domingos Church two decades later (his own epithets weren’t quite as unambiguous as his father’s, ranging from ‘the Diplomat’ to ‘the Obese’).

Although this historic structure has long served as a focal point of celebration and joy, it has also been the setting for some of Lisbon’s darkest days. In the church square, you’ll find an inscription that commemorates the victims of a terrible massacre. In 1506, a violent mob attacked the city’s Jewish community (Jews have lived in Portugal for over 15 centuries), blaming Jews for a recent outbreak of plague. A three-day killing spree, known as the Easter Slaughter, saw thousands of Jews persecuted, tortured and killed. And later that century, during the Inquisition, when the Catholic church sought to root out heresy by any means necessary, the church was where the condemned – many of Lisbon’s Jews among them – were left to wait before being burnt alive in the nearby square. Today, thankfully, the church is a place of peace, quiet and contemplation in the heart of Lisbon’s bustling city centre.

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