Despite suffering curses, collapses, financial and political struggles and centuries of neglect, the Church of Santa Engrácia continues to gaze out across the Tagus from its perch in Lisbon’s historic Alfama district. It never fulfilled its original destiny as a place of worship, having been converted to the National Pantheon in 1916. However, the conversion established the Church of Santa Engrácia as a beloved national monument and final resting place of some of Portugal’s most esteemed personalities. Here is the tale of how that came to be.
Our story begins in the 16th century with a princess. Maria of Portugal, the cultured daughter of King Manuel I of Portugal, sponsored the establishment of a church to be dedicated to Saint Engrácia, an early Christian virgin martyr, said to have been born in Portugal and died during the Diocletianic Persecution. Construction began around 1568, and, thanks to the immense wealth of its benefactor, its future looked promising.
On a fateful night in 1630, the interior of the church was desecrated and many of the frescoes, sculptures, and other religious objects destroyed. The Brotherhood of the Slaves of the Holy Sacrament, a powerful religious group that had become involved with the church, placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of another religious group, the Nova Christians, with one member bearing the brunt of their accusations—Simon Solis.
Unfortunately for Solis, his alibi, such as it was, involved being with a woman. Despite having more than one witness to testify to his whereabouts on the fated night, he was burned as a heretic for his supposed crimes, but not before levelling a curse on the Church of Santa Engrácia. He swore that it would never be complete. And indeed, it almost wasn’t.
Rather than simply restore what had been desecrated, the Holy Slaves embarked on an ambitious reconstruction and expansion plan. But financial and political problems— including Portugal’s struggle for independence from Spain in the 17th century—impeded their plans. In 1681, the damaged church collapsed in ruins.
It was not completely destroyed, however, and before long another construction project began. This time the royal architect, João Antunes, shouldered the responsibility. It’s thanks to him that the current church has its Greek cross design and a geometrically symmetrical interior.
While Antunes made an undeniable mark on the Church of Santa Engrácia, he died in 1712 before it was completed. Unfinished, plagued by a history of collapses (and indeed the lingering legacy of the curse), and lacking an architect, the church was abandoned for almost 200 years. With no one wanting to take the risk, it seemed like the Church of Santa Engrácia would never be finished; the wronged Solis, perhaps, resting a little easier in his grave.
The church’s reputation suffered over the years, with residents using the phrase “Obras de Santa Engrácia” (“Works of Santa Engrácia”) as a catch-all for never-ending construction projects. But that all started to change when, in 1916, work began to turn the structure into a National Pantheon. It was inaugurated in 1966 and the majestic church became the final resting place for many of Portugal’s most illustrious daughters and sons. Today, visitors are invited to pay their respects and walk in the footsteps of history, while admiring the grand interior and enjoying the views over the Alfama district and the Rio Tejo estuary from the terrace.
A family break to sunny Lisbon. Make it an Easter to remember.