Visitors admire the astonishing Capela de São João Baptista inside the church — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Appreciating sacred art is very often an acquired taste. Church relics, after all, can appear rather samey and tend to fall into the category of once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
However, many of the pieces exhibited in the Museu de São Roque originate from the neighboring Igreja de São Roque. Much of the collection is therefore placed in immediate context, and visitors can quickly discern several pieces from this unusual religious site.
Exquisite handcrafted silver caskets form part of the exhibition — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The museum, located in the Chiado area of Lisbon, is suitably housed in a 17th-century Jesuit residence, the adjacent 16th-century igreja being the earliest Jesuit church in the Portuguese world.
The facades of both are plain and non-descript in appearance. But don’t be fooled: The dull veneer is an architectural red herring. Step inside the church – incidentally one of the few buildings in the Portuguese capital to survive the devastating 1755 earthquake – and you enter a magnificent domain of gilded wood, sparkling silver and glimmering gold, a veritable feast of Baroque decoration and embellishment.
The opulent baroque interior of the Igreja de São Roque — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The most valuable treasures are kept in the next-door museum, and it makes sense to combine a visit to the church, which is free to enter, with a tour of this modern and wonderfully lit cultural facility.
The Museu de São Roque is modest in dimensions, but it's carefully designed to showcase an array of religious artifacts from Portugal and the wider world.
The display of the many rare and valuable vestments — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Of particular note are the pieces from the Orient and Far East accrued by the Jesuit Order after the arrival of the Portuguese in India in 1498. Equally alluring are the exquisite 16th- and 17th-century silver caskets and reliquaries, highly ornate altars.
One gallery is dedicated to an impressive collection of vestments and other liturgical garments and clerical clothing. Another hall features a collection of Portuguese religious paintings from the 16th to 18th centuries.
The gallery contains Portuguese paintings from the 16th to 18th centuries — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The highlight of a Museu de São Roque tour is the display of artifacts from the Capela de São João Baptista, the opulently decorated St. John the Baptist Chapel situated in the church.
Among the beautifully crafted pieces are a number of gold chalices, ewers and crucifixes and the star attraction, a pair of incredibly bronze-and-silver torch holders, among the largest and most elaborate in Europe.
The cloisters form an integral part of the Jesuit’s ancillary quarters. Taking advantage of this serene space is a contemporary styled café, where visitors can pause over light refreshments.
Open at various times throughout the week, the café is especially appealing on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when brunch is served.
A pair of ornately carved torches, a highlight of the museum's collection of scared art — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt