The Igrea do Carmo (Carmo Church) is one of the most vivid reminders of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. It was also an attraction I hadn’t read about prior to visiting Portugal even though it was one of the favorite things I saw on my trip there. On our first night in Lisbon we dined at a restaurant in the Barrio Alto (upper neighborhood) and following dinner we walked down into the Chiado, an adjacent neighborhood. In the Carmo Square, at first all I saw what was appeared to be a massive and imposing church. When D realized how close we were to the Santa Justa lift, we proceeded to walk in the direction of it and it was then that I saw the ruins. What only moments earlier had appeared to be a historic church from the front entrance was nothing but the skeleton of what was once a massive, and presumably, incredibly striking Gothic church in the back.
The Carmo Convent was founded for the Carmelite Order in 1389 by a Portuguese knight, Nuno Alvares Pereia, who was Constable of Portugal, the supreme military commander after the king. Carmelites entered the convent in 1392 and in 1404, Alvares Pereira, who is recorded as being extremely pious, donated his wealth to the convent. In 1423 he also became a brother of the convent. The church was thought to be the most imposing in its architecture and decoration when compared with other Gothic churches in the city.
When the great earthquake struck Lisbon on November 1, 1755, most of the convent and its church was destroyed, including the convent’s library and its collection of 5,000 books. While the convent was remodeled, the church was never fully rebuilt. Instead it forever served as a solemn reminder of the devastation reaped upon the city of Lisbon. The church was donated in 1864 to the Association of Portuguese Archaeologists, which turned the ruined building into a museum.
While I hadn’t planned on visiting the inside of the church, I’m really glad I did. As striking as it is to see the empty arches of the church rising above vast nothingness, once you step inside the door, it is as if you have entered another universe. Imagine entering St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and seeing nothing but its walls and a few pointed arches, but not its grand altar or endless rows of congregational pews.
Although the earthquake had occurred more than 250 years ago, stepping inside is like traveling back in time to the days immediately following that November 1. While the rubble was gone and the paths inside the church’s foundation “clean,” it was beautifully preserved. I had read that the church had a Latin cross floorplan (still evident today) and its interior featured a nave with three aisles and an apse (a large semicircular or polygonal recess in a church, arched or with a domed roof) with a main chapel and four side chapels. The stone roof over the nave collapsed after the earthquake and was never rebuilt. What I found even more eerie was the fact that articles typically found in centuries old churches such as the tombs of important individuals were still there, lined against the walls.
I’ve never been to Hiroshima in Japan and yet the Carmo Church immediately made me think of pictures I’ve seen of the Peace Memorial (Genbaku Domb), which was the only building left standing after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city in 1945. Much of Lisbon was destroyed in the earthquake and had to be rebuilt; however, the church was neither completely destroyed nor was it rebuilt. What was left was what remained for perpetuity. Countless events in history become lost to the ages-a battlefield that returns to its former state as farmland, a historic building that was razed-and yet at the Carmo Church, history lives on through its ghostlike facade. While one will only ever know about the great earthquake of Lisbon through reading testimonials and other historical writings, the Carmo Church truly does serve as the most tangible of reminders that no one, no matter the time can ever prevent a natural disaster from happening.
More in this series!