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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of Lisbon Cathedral

What is Lisbon Cathedral?

Lisbon Cathedral, or Sé de Lisboa in Portuguese, is Lisbon’s cathedral and oldest church, constructed in the 12th century on the site of the city’s principal mosque.

Lisbon Cathedral

Lisbon Cathedral History

For over 400 years, the dominant religion in Lisbon was Islam. After the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, Portugal became part of the Caliphate of Córdoba, whose Arab rulers practised Sunni Islam. The mosque constructed on this site, during this period, lay at the heart of the city. In 1147, Lisbon was ‘reconquered’ by King Afonso I, who appointed an English crusader as Lisbon’s first bishop; a number of English crusaders had helped the Christians reclaim the city while on their way to Jerusalem. To signify the city’s change of hands, Afonso also commissioned a new Romanesque-style cathedral to be built on the very same spot where the city’s principal mosque had stood for centuries.

During Afonso’s reign, the body of Saint Vincent of Zaragoza was transferred to be buried here in the Sé (Portuguese for ‘cathedral’, as in Rome’s ‘Holy See’). This event gave rise to a macabre but touching legend: during Vincent’s trip from Zaragoza to Lisbon, two crows are said to have accompanied and protected his body. The saint became Lisbon’s patron, and to this day, in his memory, a ship flanked by two crows sails across the city’s coat of arms. Since its establishment the cathedral’s structure has undergone numerous modifications. Around the turn of the 14th century, King Denis I ordered the construction of a Gothic cloister with vaulted galleries composed of double arches and twin columns. This peaceful cloister contains several tombs from this period, as well as a beautiful Romanesque wrought-iron railing that marks off one of the chapels. It also houses some intriguing archaeological discoveries, some of which date from Lisbon’s Roman period.

The fortress-like façade is formed of two crenelated towers, which frame a large arched doorway and a beautiful rose window – a later, Gothic addition, one of the signatures of the style. This military appearance was certainly by design, for the structure was originally both a place of worship and a citadel. However, its soaring towers found uses even less heavenly than fortification: in 1388, enraged by his perceived sympathy for the Kingdom of Spain, the people of Lisbon threw Bishop Martinho Anes from the top of the north tower.

The cathedral’s interior, which has weathered several natural disasters and subsequent restorations over the years, is an oasis of peace in the city centre. Inside you can enjoy 16th-century Mannerist paintings, and a graceful Baroque nativity scene by renowned sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro.

The Sé is one of the principal symbols of medieval Lisbon. In 1907, the cathedral was elevated to a National Monument, and today stands as testimony to the many cultures and artistic styles that have graced this wonderful and varied city.

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