“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Well with the job I have recently left, it seemed so obvious that C would be for Churches in ‘My Personal A ~ Z of Portugal’
There are churches (Igrejas) everywhere you go in Portugal, they are probably one of the most sought-after village attractions away from the beaches – and you will be hard pressed to find a village here that doesn’t have a church – or often several churches – for you to explore (as long as they are actually open – more about that later!) They are often in a prominent position in the middle of the square – or the top of the hill – and are usually well-signed for you; and it is worth researching a little before you visit a new place – this web-site Tavira Vive Cultura lists 23 churches in Tavira alone!
According to Wiki there are an estimated nine million baptized Catholics in Portugal (which is about 84% of the population) Although Church and State were formally separated during the Portuguese First Republic (1910–1926): a separation reiterated in the constitution of 1976; however Roman Catholic precepts continue to have a significant bearing in Portuguese society and culture even today.
Many Portuguese holidays, festivals, and traditions have a religious origin or meaning; and are adhered to with some fervour, and the Roman Catholic faith is infused throughout the history of Portugal and its people – for example – António de Oliveira Salazar was a seminarian before he studied law, and his roommate at the University of Coimbra, Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira; later became ‘Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon.
It is held that traditionally, the first son of elite families inherited land, the second went into the army, and the third became a bishop!
There is also quite a marked North/South divide – with the north of the country being more devoutly Catholic than the south.
Many of the churches were built in the 16th century and lavishly decorated with gold leaf and extravagant ornamentation – as befitting a country involved in world exploration and conquests.
We have often sat in a church, just soaking it all in, before we even begin to explore – or photograph anything; and watched tourists come and go. Many walk into a church, stand for a minute, turn on their heels and walk out again – some wander around – and some really take their time and look at everything the building has to offer. We often see local people come in to pray – they are very proud of their faith, and kneel in true repentance and prayer amidst the tourists and visitors.
There have been many posts and web-sites about churches – I’ve been busy myself talking about Faro – and Silves – whose Cathedral is still my absolute favourite place of worship to visit here in the Algarve. So I thought for this post, I would do something different – and take you on a tour of a ‘typical’ Catholic church here in the Algarve – using several different churches to illustrate things – and maybe give you something different to look for next time you venture through the doors of a church out here… and with apologies to anyone for whom the Catholic church is already ‘home’ I have tried to take quite a ‘basic’ approach to this and assumed that the inside of a church is not a particularly familiar place for many visitors… so pull up a chair, make a cup of tea (How British!) and settle back for a long post!
To begin with – the outside of a church over here can be quite stunning – even in a relatively small village the church can often seem palatial, towering over the village or town – like this one at Porches; the Igreja Matriz:
Some are more ‘hidden’, tucked alongside other buildings and harder to spot, like this one at Tavira, the Nossa Senhora da Consolação (17th century) – which according to history is apparently the chapel where the condemned spent their last hours!
Or try this one – the Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Rocha (Our Lady of the Rock) which is situated in one of the most stunning locations imaginable – right on the edge of the cliffs:
Even the doorways themselves are often impressive sights, with heavy wood panelling, and impressive door knockers and locks – and often several smaller doorways hidden around the exterior of the church building. This doorway, the entrance to the Igreja Matriz de Monchique, is a fantastic Manueline doorway with stone columns that resemble knotted rope:
We have found that a lot of churches – especially the smaller ones – are often closed during the day, which is such a shame. Often though, you go to a tiny village, find the church and expect it to be closed shut, and are pleasantly surprised as the door is wide open and welcoming. It really is pot luck sometimes – and we have decided that if we find one open we will always go in – some of the smallest least imposing looking churches have had the most fantastic interiors … and if you wait until ‘next time’ chances are it will be closed again! We’ve sometimes sneaked in with the cleaning committee – always ladies from the village, who are invariably very happy to show you around and proud of their local church.
As long as you can find an open door (!) as you enter the church, you should see a holy water font (usually on your right) – which contains water which is blessed by the priest and is used to remind Catholics of their baptism. When they enter the church they dip their fingers in the holy water and then make the sign of the cross. They do this to remind themselves of their baptism and that they are entering the presence of God in the church. When they leave, they do the same but this time to remind themselves that they are being sent out into the world by Jesus to bring his love to others.
Entering the church proper, in the nave ( from the Latin word for “boat”) you should find the Stations of the Cross – 14 pictures placed around the walls, telling the story of how Jesus suffered and died – these are often extremely elaborate and ornate paintings or carvings; and can often tell you some history of the church by how old they appear. The main body of the church is often constructed with enormous stone pillars, ornate and beautiful tiles and wooden ceilings – and it is always worth looking up!
I am always taken by the stained glass windows in churches – many are extremely old and intricately designed – others are much more modern – and all ensure the church is often bathed in a myriad of colour and lights – although historically they were also there to illustrate the stories of the Bible for those who could not read or afford expensive manuscripts. (The 13th-century windows of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, for example, contains 1,134 illustrations from the Bible!)
The High Altar – whilst ancient synagogue liturgy was traditionally oriented to face towards Jerusalem: Christian liturgy is supposed to be celebrated with the priest and the congregation facing East (“ad orientem“) the direction from where Jesus, as symbolized by the rising Sun, will come again; therefore the High Altar is traditionally situated on the east side of a church; so it should be possible to get your compass bearings from the position of the altar. The altar should be fixed, made of natural stone, and contain a relic of a Saint (martyrs are often favoured!)
Around the altar area is the reredos (from arrere “rear” and dos “back”), which are the statues and paintings on the back of the altar together with their beautiful and elaborately carved shrines. The reredos or extension of the altar is what most Catholics mean when they speak of the altar (rather than the table itself). These altars with their reredos are often objects of great beauty, the focal point for the congregation and the pride of the local parish.
Some are so beautifully painted and so astonishingly detailed that they really can take your breath away – this is my favourite of all, the reredos at Lagos:
Every Catholic church should have a crucifix displayed – often near the altar, and often of immense stature, this is the one at Monchique’s parish church:
Another feature of churches in Portugal will be the emphasis on the saints, and most churches have several alcoves resplendent with a saint displayed in each. Until researching for this post, I had not noticed the fact that the images of saints in Portugal are always depicted as calm, serene and pleasant – as oppose to Spanish saints which are always given pained and anguished expressions!
According to Wiki this is because, in contrast to that of Spain, Roman Catholicism in Portugal was traditionally softer and less intense. The widespread use of folk practices and the humanization of religion made for a loving though remote God, in contrast to the harshness of the Spanish vision. In Portugal, unlike Spain, God and his saints were therefore imagined as forgiving and serene.
The Portuguese have historically sought to establish a close and personal relationship with their saints. Whilst they believe God to be a remote and inaccessible figure, they therefore petitioned their patron saints to act as intermediaries. To win their saint’s goodwill, believers presented the saint with gifts, showed that they gave alms to the poor, and demonstrated upright behaviour, hoping that the saint might intercede on their behalf with God. The statues and paintings of the saints also aided the devotion of the faithful at a time when active participation in the liturgical action was reserved to the clergy. Particularly in rural areas and villages, the tradition of celebrating saints’ days is still very popular, and many of the festivals here in the Algarve relate back to a saint or religious event.
Saint Vincent is the patron saint of Lisbon and the Algarve – and is also the patron saint of winemakers – how appropriate!
It is believed by many that the most famous religious event in Portugal is the claimed apparition of the Virgin Mary to three children in the village of Fátima in 1917. The Basilica of our Lady of Fatima and the Chapel of Apparitions in the district of Santarém is the focus for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visiting the shrine at Fátima each year, many in the hope of receiving healing. Many churches have elaborate statues or painted tiles depicting this:
There are also often figures of women depicted in the alcoves – there are some fine examples in Alvor church – these show our lady of ‘ajuda’ (help); our lady of prazêres (pleasures) and our lady of conceiçâo (conception) – also there to aid prayer.
The figure of Our Lady – Mary the mother of Jesus – is often given a place of importance in the church – this figure from Silves Cathedral is particularly impressive:
The tabernacle (tabernaculum, Latin for “tent”), is the “little house” in which the Blessed Sacrament is kept. The little golden door on the high altar with a red lamp burning before it is a sure sign that you are in a Catholic church.
The sanctuary – which means ‘a holy place’; is usually a lavish and ornate section of the church, with a large and impressive Sanctuary Lamp hanging from the ceiling. For Catholics, it is a sign that Jesus is present in a special way in the Holy Communion that is kept in the tabernacle; and for this reason Catholics believe that the tabernacle is the holiest place in the church. The lamp is always lit night and day except for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. This one is from Faro Cathedral:
You should also be able to easily find a baptismal carved or stone font. There should also be a niche in the wall or a little chest, the ambry, which contains three vessels of oil: the oil of catechumens which is used to bless and strengthen those preparing for baptism; the oil of the sick which brings Jesus’ strength and healing; and the sacred chrism which is used in celebrating the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders.
Near the baptismal area, you may also find a door leading to a separate reconciliation chapel, designed for the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession). The reconciliation chapel is located in the baptismal area because of the historical relation between these two sacraments: The Sacrament of Penance developed from the need to reconcile Christians who were not faithful to their baptismal promises and who had sinned.
In some churches it is common to still see one or more confessionals, which are much smaller “rooms” built out from the side or back wall of the church containing a place for the priest confessor to sit, separated by a screen or grill from the place for the penitent to kneel and confess his or her sins. Confessionals appeared in Catholic churches during the 16th century and are still common in Portuguese churches today. I absolutely love this photograph of the confessional in a church in Faro, with umbrella resting beside the door:
Looking back at the church again from the back, you should also be able to work out the layout of the church – most cathedrals and great churches have a cruciform ground plan. In churches of Western European tradition, the plan is usually longitudinal, in the form of the so-called Latin Cross with a long nave crossed by a transept.
I have always been confused by the names given to parts of the church – I’ll have a go at explaining it … the transverse arm of a cruciform church is called the transept. Because the liturgy is supposed to be celebrated ad orientem (facing east), the left side of the transept is called the North transept and the right side of the transept is called the South transept. This is so even if the actual orientation of the Church doesn’t have the Altar at the East side. Ok – confused yet? – yes – me too!
I just prefer to enjoy the ‘layout’ as it hits me – some churches inside are visually stunning with high ceilings and lots of light flooding in. Others seem dark and gloomy. Some are decorated so ornately you have to feel sorry for the ladies who come in to clean them! And some just have a magical and peaceful aura and presence as you enter them – I particularly like the little church at Praia da Luz; which is shared between the local Catholic and Anglican churches:
There are also some quirky things you can enjoy spotting as you tour round – I am fascinated by the pulpits that often adorn the wall of churches here in the Algarve, like this one:
How is the priest supposed to climb up here?! The pulpits are often very ornate and large structures in Portuguese churches; and having given several addresses from the impressive pulpit of Exeter Cathedral, I can only imagine what it would feel like to be ensconced in some of the ones we have seen out here.
One of my favourite quirky things is this door in the small Santa Misericórdia Church in Silves – I always smile at the door that is situated half way up the wall – and wonder how are the congregation supposed to climb in? Or worse still – fall out after a service?! Luckily this is only a side door!
Before you leave – please take the time to hunt out the collection box too – some are very obvious (!); but others are hidden away in a wall. Our best story so far is of a tiny church we visited – we said ‘boa tarde’ to a lady who was obviously part of the church furniture but who was sat outside in a far corner sunning herself – she hurried in after us and made a great show of pointing out the collection box and asking us to donate … which we were happy to do (I always like to leave something – especially if we have taken photographs –we always ask if we can). The lady went back out into the sunshine and we happily toured round – and then noticed that she had left her handbag in full view wide open, purse sat on top. How trusting the local people are. It was an unusual – but refreshing sight. (She also checked that we had left some money in the box again as we left!)
If you are extremely lucky (as we were only this weekend) you may also happen upon a procession – we were in Vila do Bispo when the entire church and most of the village trooped out of the church and processed around the entire village singing and carrying St Vincent on a large banquet (carried by the Bomberos!) – it was a very moving and special moment, celebrating St Vincent’s national day – the 22nd of January.
I hope that this guide has given you some different things to look for and enjoy when you are next visiting a church over here – and please let me know your favourite churches and objects too. They really are a hidden treasure trove of history and art; and a wonderful place for great photography. They are also often a place of serene beauty and peace, amidst the busy tourist resorts; and a place of pride and history for local villages. You don’t have to be ‘religious’ to go inside – why not sneak in the back quietly and sit and enjoy the quiet and peace that you will find waiting for you – or be really brave and attend a service? I’ve been to several at Ferragudo’s little church, and although I didn’t understand most of what was said, there is a rhythm and a flow that is both familiar and reassuring – and the locals make you feel very welcome.
So – there it is – a guide to churches in Portugal – I do hope that you have found this useful.