A Church Marked by Tragedy

by Mark

The church of São Domingos in Lisbon, has a checkered history. Having survived two earthquakes and a devastating fire, you are left wondering whether the building is blessed or cursed. Visiting this haunting building was a highlight of my trip to Portugal. I stumbled across the ancient cathedral at the tail end of a tour that had included grand ecclesiastical structures awash with polished marble, intricate carvings and stained glass. It was São Domingos’ stark contrast to these ostentatious buildings that so captivated my interest.

Construction started on this site 1241 and it is where the Inquisition read out judgments from the original convent. The church was damaged by the 1531 Lisbon earthquake and almost completely destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Rebuilding began quickly using leftovers from other destroyed buildings including the entrance portal and balcony, which came from the old Royal Palace. Work was not completed until 1807.

Church Diptich 2

In 1959 the church was devastated once more when a fire completely gutted the church destroying many important paintings, tapestries and statues. Whether through financial necessity or a respect for the hardship this building has endured, successive generations decided to leave the bruises of its life exposed. In 1994 the church reopened leaving clear signs of the fire in the scorched pillars that now frame and accentuate the restored statues and icons. The result is an evocative and memorable space that makes no apology for its history.

São Domingos church reminded me of a maxim by renowned heritage architect, Clive Lucas. He strongly advises that in the process of restoring significant historic buildings, “do as much as is necessary – but as little as possible”. The pragmatic light touch implied by this philosophy should apply to all architectural design decisions urging sensitivity to environment, context and history.

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