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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of the Church of Sao Roque in Lisbon

What is the Church of Sao Roque?

The Church of Sao Roque, or Igreja de São Roque in Portuguese, is a 16th-century church, the first home of the Jesuits in Portugal, adorned with gilded carvings and ceiling paintings full of marvellous optical illusion.

Figure at Church of Sao Roque

Church of Sao Roque History

In the early 16th century Portugal suffered a deadly plague. A new cemetery was constructed to accommodate the victims, near a section of the Fernandina Wall, Lisbon’s second line of defence. In 1506, King Manuel I asked the city of Venice for relics of Saint Roch (São Roque in Portuguese), patron saint of the disabled and protector against the plague. The relics were placed near the cemetery and a hermitage was built to preserve them.

In 1540, during the reign of John III, the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious order founded by Ignatius of Loyola, received a hospitable welcome in Portuguese territory. 13 years later, the Jesuits chose this hermitage to host its first Church and Professed House. The construction project was given to the king's master builder, architect Afonso Álvares, although the work was finished by the Bolognese architect Filippo Terzi, who was responsible for designing the roof and the façade. Inside the church, a side chapel is reserved for the worship of São Roque, so that he would always be invoked by the brotherhood. Even as it gained in popularity and international reach, the Church of São Roque remained the headquarters of the Order in Portugal.

Exterior of Church of Sao Roque in Lisbon

The rectangular church contains eight side chapels. Besides that of São Roque, the most notable is that of John the Baptist, designed and executed in the mid-18th century by Italian architects Niccolò Salvi (the man behind Rome’s Trevi Fountain) and Luigi Vanvitelli. The exquisite, gilded chapel was supposedly the most expensive ever constructed at the time; erected in Rome, it was then disassembled and shipped to Lisbon where it was successfully reconstructed. Interspersed between the church’s upper windows are paintings by 17th-century artist Domingos da Cunha depicting episodes from the life of Saint Ignatius.

The gilded carvings in several of the church’s chapels catch the eye with their skill and opulence. The liberal use of gold attests to Portugal’s conquest of Brazil, and the supply of precious resources this ensured. They are surmounted, though, by the magnificent Mannerist ceiling, added in the late 16th century by royal painter Francisco Venegas. Brilliantly employing the technique known as trompe-l'œil (French for ‘deceive the eye’), Venegas achieved the illusion of a vaulted ceiling, with balconies and huge domes rising into the sky.

In 1768, after the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portuguese territory, the Church of São Roque, as well as all its assets, was donated by King Joseph I to a charitable organisation which remains in ownership of the site to this day. The former Jesuit complex also houses a museum dedicated to its history, with a collection of European and Asian art important for understanding the presence and legacy of the Society of Jesus around the world. The church stands out as a unique monument in the religious architecture of the Jesuits; for this reason it has served as a precedent, both architectural and historical, for a number of other churches across Portugal and Brazil.

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