A local resident offers a prayer while bathed in candlelight inside Igreja de Sao Domingos — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
This has nothing to do with its venerated age, rather, the fact that over its near 900-year-old history, the structure has survived a succession of extraordinary calamities, both natural and man-made.
Fire damage is evident in the scorched and distorted pillars that flank the church chapels — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Located in the city’s Baixa District just off Rossio’s central Praça Dom Pedro IV, the building’s unremarkable exterior doesn’t exactly catch the eye; its austere façade clearly lacks the architectural grandeur associated with other Lisbon churches.
Indeed, this is not a place to admire richness and splendor. Instead, Igreja de São Domingos speaks of strength and resurrection, a religious site that bears the scars of misfortune but remains an active house of worship.
It’s also an intriguing and culturally important Lisbon visitor attraction.
A cross to bear: An elevated chapel sits within scarred and broken stonework — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The story of São Domingos is a fascinating one. The church has endured two earthquakes since its consecration in 1241. The first, in 1531, left the adjoining convent in ruins but spared the foundations, on which a new church was built.
The great earthquake of 1755 caused considerably more damage – the tremors, fierce fires and then a huge tidal surge destroying all but the altar and sacristy.
The church nave perfectly illustrates the contrast between the original, fire damaged architecture and modern refurbishment — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Rebuilt, the church was later extended and renovated. And for 200 years, Lisbon’s faithful gathered religiously under its impressive vaulted ceiling. Then on August 13, 1959, disaster struck again.
A devastating fire consumed the wooden roof and gutted the interior, with many priceless statues and paintings lost forever. The blaze took six hours to distinguish and two firefighters lost their lives tackling the flames.
Stone and marble buckled under the intense heat, and the inferno left surfaces scarred and blackened.
Restoration began in earnest, which included the construction of a new roof. But a decision was made to leave visible the fire-damaged patina – a bold gesture of defiance against seemingly supernatural forces as much as resignation to the fact that damage this time was so extensive that it simply wasn’t practical to repair everything, not to mention the cost this would involve!
However, the evaluation proved fortuitous. No other church in Portugal resembles São Domingos, and its unique interior remains an endearing city landmark.
A visitor pauses by one of the tombs located at the rear of the nave — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
An atmosphere of solemn piety pervades the vast hollowness of Igreja de São Domingos. Bereft of its carved, gilded and painted woodwork, beautifully smooth statuary and precious marbles, the stark and battered dimensions appear as a crude preparatory drawing sketched in charcoal.
The stricken pillars embracing the chapels look as though they might topple at any moment.
Visible signs of destruction add pathos to an already evocative scene of devotion — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
But there are pockets of redemption; remnants of once-sumptuous Baroque architecture peep from behind flaking, patchwork walls, while artwork illuminates various corners that would otherwise be shrouded under shadow.
The ornately decorated high altar, which escaped the worst ravages of the fire, hints at how splendid the interior must have once looked. Parts of the aforementioned sacristy are adorned with 17th-century tiles and embellished with furniture crafted from exotic pausanto wood.
Members of the public often use the church to relax in and take advantage of the peace and quiet — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
São Domingos still functions as a church, and visitors need to respect the sensitivities of worshippers, especially during mass. At other times, local residents can be observed seated at prayer or standing in quiet contemplation, seemingly oblivious to the outside world.
Their devotion is quite humbling.
Upkeep of the free-to-enter Igreja de São Domingos is met, in part, through donations, and the public is invited to repay their visit by lighting a palm-sized candle in exchange for a few euros.
The flickering glow casts a warm radiance across the scarred stonework that is at once as welcoming as it is enlightening.
The nave and high altar and an assembled congregation, all framed by the remains of stone and marble — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt