A Church in Need of Salvation

Saint Dominic’s Church in the historic center of Lisbon looks like the average Baroque building from the outside. Which is surprising considering the original medieval church, the largest in Lisbon at the time, dated from 1241.

I expected a riot of painted ceilings and ornate moulding inside. Instead, I found a church in need of salvation. Cracked pillars, scarred surfaces and missing architectural elements gave the nave a forlorn and abandoned atmosphere.

I assumed the building had been damaged in the 1755 earthquake that leveled much of Lisbon. But many churches had been repaired or rebuilt after the quake. The answer was provided in copies of newspaper articles posted in the back. I couldn’t read the Portugese but the pictures told the story. On August 13, 1959, the church was gutted and nearly destroyed in a catastrophic fire.

A bit of research told me that the medieval church had been damaged by the 1531 Lisbon earthquake and virtually destroyed by the 1755 quake, when only the sacristy and altar survived. It was the late 18th-century Baroque reconstruction which had burned.

I also discovered St. Dominic’s was the site of the first deaths in the 1506 Easter Slaughter, a three-day massacre during which 2000 heretics, people accused of being Jews, were tortured and killed by rampaging crowds. Many were burnt alive or torn to pieces as mass hysteria spread. The crowd, many of them foreign sailors from the port, looted houses, stealing gold, silver and other goods.

Due to pressure from Spain, the Jews had been expelled from Portugal in 1496 or forcibly baptized as New Christians in 1497. Those who refused baptism were force to leave without their children. The Lisbon Massacre created a climate of suspicion throughout Portugal. Things went from bad to worse 30 years later when the Portuguese Inquisition was opened.

Perhaps its history is why I find St. Dominic’s an unsettling space, though I wasn’t aware of it when I visited. Could it be that the fires of the Inquisition were finally extinguished?

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