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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of the Basilica da Estrela in Lisbon

What is the Basílica da Estrela?

The Basílica da Estrela is a significant 18th-century Baroque church in the leafy district of Estrela in Lisbon.

Basilica da Estrela

Basílica da Estrela History

Here at the top of the Calçada da Estrela avenue, right in front of one of Lisbon’s greenest gardens, stands the gleaming white Royal Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – or the Basílica da Estrela, as it’s more commonly known, named after the district you’re standing in. Its construction began in 1779, by order of Queen Maria I: she made a vow at a shrine of the Sacred Heart that, if she was blessed with a male child and heir to the throne, she would construct a basilica; the child arrived, the queen stayed true to her word, and is now buried in the church she had built. A woman of many talents, Maria was renowned for numerous other achievements: the foundation of the Royal Academy of Sciences, dedicated to the research and dissemination of arts and culture in Portugal; helping the refugees of the French Revolution; and a wise and cunning commercial alliance with Russia. Sadly, the end of her life was spent in a state of madness; she died in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before her body came home to the basilica.

Design was entrusted to the famous court architect Mateus Vicente de Oliveira, who (as is often the case for elaborate churches of the period) never saw the building’s completion. Oliveira’s plans and proposals received widespread appreciation, but his successor, Reinaldo Manuel dos Santos, radically changed the initial project. He had other ambitions for the completion of the basilica, assigning a more Baroque and less Rocaille style (a French aesthetic immediately preceding Rococo).

Statues on the Basilica da Estrela

Completed in the 1790s, the basilica follows a ‘Latin Cross’ floor plan, built in the shape of a crucifix. The church’s impressive main façade comprises three sections from left to right, the central of which features a relief depicting the Adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, flanked by four Virtues (Faith, Devotion, Gratitude and Generosity) atop their own columns. All these figures were created by famous sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro. Beside these, on both levels, you’ll see four niches that hold statues of a prominent Carmelite friar, two equally significant Carmelite nuns, and the prophet Elijah, all adorned with dramatically flowing clothing that typifies Baroque statuary. (The basilica and adjoining convent were once inhabited by the Carmelite Nuns, who famously walk barefoot.) The two elaborately decorated bell towers and the beautiful dome give the church a rather imposing appearance and ensure it stands out from the Lisbon skyline.

The basilica’s interior is enlivened by the clarity and intricacy of the carving; by the pink, grey, and yellow colours of the different marbles; and by the light that enters through the church’s dome. Several of the paintings are by the renowned Roman artist Pompeo Batoni, who painted the portraits of many popes and European monarchs during the 18th century. Joaquim Machado de Castro, whose statues ornament the façade, also contributed sculptures to the interior. His colourful nativity scene, which sits within a giant glass cabinet, is the largest in Portugal with almost 500 figures, all carefully crafted with terracotta and cork. It depicts the birth of Christ in exuberant detail, but in true Baroque spirit goes for maximal effects, depicting many other Biblical scenes in addition.

Before you leave, climb the hundred steps that take you to the top of the basilica and contemplate the city of Lisbon in all its splendour. Queen Maria would have been pleased; and so are we that she kept her vow.

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