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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the National Pantheon in Lisbon

What is the National Pantheon?

Founded as a church in the 16th century, the National Pantheon contains the tombs of some of Portugal’s heroes.

View of National Pantheon and the sea in Lisbon

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National Pantheon History

Soaring high above Lisbon’s terracotta roofs, the handsome dome of the National Pantheon can be seen far and wide. You would be forgiven for thinking this white Baroque structure was a place of worship since it was founded as one and bears striking resemblances to many churches across Italy.

In the 1560s, Princess Maria, daughter of King Manuel I, commissioned and sponsored the construction of a church dedicated to Saint Engratia. The following century, it was the talk of the nation as, in January 1630, news broke that the building had been scandalously robbed: a thief had stolen a silver box containing its consecrated wafers. People were furious; they demanded a scapegoat. Simão Pires Solis, a man who had been seen near the church on the night of the robbery, was arrested, subjected to torture, and tried. In truth, he had wandered round to a nearby convent, where he had attempted to woo a certain young noblewoman. Solis was condemned to death a year later, on the grounds that he was ‘a restless man and a New Christian’, his hands were amputated and he was burned alive. Some years later, the real criminal was apprehended for stealing silver candlesticks in Spain, after which he owned up to the act of sacrilege in Lisbon. In his final days, Solis called down a curse on the ‘works of Santa Engrácia’, an imprecation that they might never be completed.

Imposing National Pantheon of Lisbon

This almost came true; the church was only finally finished in the 1960s, some 280 years after work began. The current building, designed by royal architect João Antunes, was erected after the previous structure collapsed. Antunes’s church is in the shape of a Greek cross (like a plus sign), a novelty in contemporary Portuguese architecture. However, the Baroque-style church with its undulating façade – influenced by the works of 17th-century Italian architect Francesco Borromini – originally looked somewhat different from the way it does today, since it was at first topped with a flat roof.

Thanks to the death of Antunes and the extinction of Portuguese religious orders in the 19th century, the church remained unfinished. Many thought Solis’s curse was playing out, and the expression como las obras de Santa Engrácia (‘like building the Santa Engrácia’) came to be used to describe never-ending projects. After being put to various uses, such as a footwear factory during the First World War, Portugal’s Republican government decided it was necessary to transform the religious building into a National Pantheon, a temple built to honour Portugal’s heroes. The marbled interior was restored to its former glory, newly sculpted figures adorned the walls, and a majestic dome was finally added. Since its conversion, the National Pantheon has housed the tombs and cenotaphs of Portugal’s most celebrated figures, such as writer Almeida Garrett, footballer Eusébio, and explorer Vasco da Gama.

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