General Decoration, Church of Saint Roch in Lisbon

The decoration of the Igreja de São Roque is the result of several phases of activity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, reflecting the ideals of either the Society of Jesus or, as in the case of the chapels, the respective brotherhoods or confraternities. It was born of the Catholic Reformation, and reflects the efforts of the Church to capture the attention of the faithful. The general decorative phases are Mannerist (the chapels of St. Francis Xavier, of the Holy Family, and of the chancel); early Baroque (Chapel of the Holy Sacrament); later Baroque (Chapels of Our Lady of the Doctrine and of Our Lady of Piety); and Roman Baroque of the 1740s (Chapel of St. John the Baptist). 19th-century renovations include the construction of the choir gallery over the main door where the pipe organ was installed; the remodeling of the screen of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament and the erection of the gilded iron railings; also the replacement of the entrance doors.

Various parts of the church (e.g., the walls under the choir gallery and in the transept) are decorated with “diamond-point” tiles from the Triana district of Seville and dated by tradition to 1596. Elsewhere the tile decoration includes botanical elements, volutes, putti, symbols of the Passion, and the monogram of the Society of Jesus (“IHS”). In the niches above the two pulpits are white marble statues of the four Evangelists. Around the upper story of the nave is a cycle of oil painting depicting the life of Ignatius of Loyola (ca. 1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, attributed to Domingos da Cunha, the Cabrinha, a Jesuit painter of the early 17th century.

The painted ceiling of the nave is a trompe l’oeil designed to give the illusion of barrel vaulting supported by four large arches covered in volutes and other decorative elements. Between the arches are painted squared balconies and “above” these balconies are three huge domes or cupolas rising on rings of open arches and columns. Most of this was painted between 1584 and 1586 by Francisco Venegas (fl. 1578-1590), royal painter to King Philip II. The Jesuits added the large central medallion (The Glorification of the Cross), as well as 8 large paintings and 12 monochrome panels depicting Biblical events. The ceiling near the front of the church was damaged in the 1755 earthquake and was rebuilt and repainted. The entire ceiling was restored in 2001 and the paint cleaned or repaired.

The Baroque organ (with 1694 pipes) in the choir gallery over the main door was built in 1784 by António Xavier Machado e Cerveira and installed in the monastery church of São Pedro de Alcântara. In the 1840s it was moved to São Roque where it was set up in the east transept, completely obscuring the Altar of the Annunciation; it was relocated to the choir gallery in the 1890s. It has been substantially rebuilt several times.

The painted ceiling of the nave is a trompe l’oeil composition so as to give the illusion of a barrel vaulting supported by four large arches. Between the arches squared balconies are painted and “above” these balconies there are three huge domes or cupolas rising on rings of open arches and columns. The initial work was painted in 1588 by Francisco Venegas (1578-1590), royal painter to King Philip II. The Jesuits commissioned later the large central medallion (The Exaltation of the Cross), as well as the 8 large rectangular paintings and 12 monochrome panels depicting Biblical events. The ceiling near the front of the church was damaged in the 1755 Earthquake and was rebuilt and repainted afterwards. The entire ceiling was restored for the first time in the 19th century. In 2001 a complete and thorough restoration was carried out. It is the oldest painted ceiling remaining in Lisbon.

The only example from Lisbon that remains of the large ceilings painted in the mannerist period. His painting took place between 1587 and 1589, and was by the royal painter Francisco Venegas, master of Spanish origin.

Later, at the beginning of the 17th century, the painter Amaro do Vale added to the composition the large central medallion, representing the “Exaltation of the Holy Cross”, as well as two Eucharistic panels located on the side strips of the ceiling.

The Chapel
Within the patrimony of the Church of São Roque stands out the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, commissioned by king D.João V (1706-50) intended to be a unique work of art in the artistic context of his time. The king of Portugal had a determinant role regarding the iconographic choices, as well as about his artistic preferences, himself showing a particular sensitivity towards taste.

Fortunately spared by the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, this Chapel was one of the most famous enterprises of the Magnanimous king, who wished to leave in this church of the Society of Jesus the mark of his reign, namely the image of a sovereign that would be no less important than the main European courts of the time.

As a masterpiece of priceless value in the context of the European art of the 18th century, its construction took place between 1742 and 1750, when it was officially inaugurated in Lisbon. Consecrated by Pope Benedict XIV on 15 December 1744 in the Church of St. Anthony of the Portuguese (Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi) in Rome, it was sufficiently finished so that the Sovereign Pontiff could say mass in it on 6 May 1747.

In September of that year, the chapel was dismantled, transported to Lisbon in three ships, and two years later reassembled in São Roque. The Chapel’s iconographic program was immediately agreed upon and the painter, Agostino Masucci (1691 – 1758), was selected for the painting works.

The architectural project, however, was involved in a somewhat heated controversy between the responsible for its development in Rome, Nicola Salvi (1697-1751) and Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773), and the coordinators of the commission in Portugal, led by João Frederico Ludovice (1673-1752), the German architect at the service of King João V.

Ludovice did question often times the choices made and would even propose variations, sending alternative drawings to the architects, which prompted frequent reactions. He even imposed alterations rather significant.

In turn the Roman architects keen to develop the artistic side tried not without difficulty to satisfy all the directives emanated from Lisbon, as explained through the documents emanated from Portugal. Thus, Salvi and Vanvitelli had to change more than once their project, even the more original components, so that the work would comply with the more classic and formal tastes imposed from Lisbon.

An important element to be mentioned here related with the commission is the Weale Album (the name coming from the English editor, John Weale, who owned it). The volume in question, despite various vicissitudes which threatened its survival in the 19th century, is currently deposited in the library of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was entitled “Libro degli Abozzi de Disegni delle Commissioni che si fanno in Roma per Ordine della Corte” and is a meticulously written and drawn record of the Italian art commissions for Lisbon ordered by the Ambassador Manuel Pereira Sampaio in Rome.

Regarding the iconographic program for the Chapel, this should try to respond to the triple invocation/title of the Chapel, namely the Holy Spirit, Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist, and develops in two elements: the altar and the lateral mosaic compositions, as well as the sculpture, namely the pair of medallions on the ceiling, which represent “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist in the Desert” and “The Visitation of Mary to Elisabeth”.

As for the ornamental components in metal, several artists and artisans participated, all of them belonging to professions related to metalwork. So, we can recognize there the intervention of metal workers such as goldsmiths and silversmiths, blacksmiths and iron workers.

Equally the mosaics, which feature the Baptism of Christ (the central one), the Annunciation and the Pentecost (the side ones).All these professionals, as well as the mosaicists, the sculptors and even the painter Agostino Masucci, responsible for the execution of the original paintings here transposed on to the mosaic panels, all worked under the straight coordination and supervision of the Italian architects, who were the ultimate responsible for the compositions

The paving is also decorated with vitreous mosaics, slightly bigger than the ones used at the panels.

Around the central oval, containing the armillary sphere, encircled by festoons of flowers, there are two major features in red porphyry, set in a mosaic frame, made up of winding yellow acanthus on a blue background. The frames are divided in decorative strips of varied old and modern marble, unusually assembled by brass fillets, similar to gold in colour.

Among the materials used for coating the walls 24 types of ornamental stones exceedingly rich are counted, namely lapis lazuli, agate, antique green, alabaster, diaspor, Persian gold-yellow, Carrara marble, French white-black, amethyst, purple porphyry, ancient brecchia, among others.

Alongside the ornamental stones, were used vitreous mosaics and gilded metals strikingly rich, as well as the marquetry work made up of precious woods and ivory which composes the last step of the altar, thus giving the Chapel a superlative beauty.

The Treasure
On 9th March 1744, it was also commissioned to Roman artists, a set of liturgical vestments, utensils, lacework and missals, a collection truly unrivalled anywhere else in the world for their magnificence. They were made by the most highly reputed artists and craftsmen available in the Eternal City, who themselves supplied the Vatican.

The Italian baroque silver pieces that make up the treasure of the chapel of Saint John the Baptist is, indeed, a unique collection, that were truly unrivalled anywhere else in the world in their range and magnificence

They were made by the most highly reputed artists and craftsmen available in the Eternal City, who themselves supplied the Vatican. Despite the significant losses that time has inflicted upon this collection, it still amounts today to a unique set of liturgical instruments worldwide.

Liturgical vestments
The liturgical vestments constitute another exceptional collection, comprised over one hundred and fifty pieces, including, The homogeneity of the materials, the uniformity in the execution and the formal unity characterize the chapel vestments as a whole, “conforming to the richest and best taste in Rome”. The aim was clear: as with the other works of art commissioned for the Chapel, so the textile works should not be secondary in the projection of the image, which had to emulate the taste, the style and pageantry of Rome.

The treasure of the Chapel includes white vestments and red vestments, for daily use, festive days and solemn, in white, red, purple, green, rose and black. The remaining vestments (except for the black) have only versions for quotidian and festive days.

Particularly expensive and rare the pink vestment can be used only in two specific days: on the third Sunday of Advent and on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

In contrast to all the other works of art commissioned for the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, the lacework was not produced in Rome. Lace was simply not made in the papal city and the most important manufactures were to be found in Flanders and France

The lacework was, therefore, not purposely made but purchased as required, together with their fabrics. For this reason, the lacework does not share the sumptuous 18th century baroque style, but rather the more widespread rococo taste.

Liturgical Books
The liturgical books for the royal Chapel of St. John the Baptist plays a significant role in the liturgical services held in the chapel. Conceived with similar type of design and decoration so to match the other pieces in the collection, they constitute fine examples of elaborate printed works composed for the religious functions. As sacred objects they could be no less worthy in dignity as the other sacred objects of the royal commission.

The set is made up of: two Roman Missals, one Book of Epistles, one Book of Gospels, one Canon Missal for use of Bishops.

The pipe organ, built in 1784, was one of the first instruments in the workshop of the famous organeiro, António Xavier Machado e Cerveira.

In sequence to the expulsion of the Society of Jesus in 1759, the Church and the Professed House of São Roque were entrusted to the Misericórdia de Lisboa, in 1768, by king José I. Nevertheless the Chapel of St. John the Baptist continued in possession of the Royal House up to 1892, when its care was handed over by the Ministry of the Kingdom to the Misericórdia de Lisboa, together with the whole ensemble of liturgical items, creating the museum in 1905.

São Roque Church and Museum
The Igreja de São Roque (Church of Saint Roch) is a Roman Catholic church in Lisbon, Portugal. It was the earliest Jesuit church in the Portuguese world, and one of the first Jesuit churches anywhere. The edifice served as the Society’s home church in Portugal for over 200 years, before the Jesuits were expelled from that country. After the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the church and its ancillary residence were given to the Lisbon Holy House of Mercy to replace their church and headquarters which had been destroyed. It remains a part of the Holy House of Mercy today, one of its many heritage buildings.

The Igreja de São Roque was one of the few buildings in Lisbon to survive the earthquake relatively unscathed. When built in the 16th century it was the first Jesuit church designed in the “auditorium-church” style specifically for preaching. It contains a number of chapels, most in the Baroque style of the early 17th century. The most notable chapel is the 18th-century Chapel of St. John the Baptist (Capela de São João Baptista), a project by Nicola Salvi and Luigi Vanvitelli constructed in Rome of many precious stones and disassembled, shipped, and reconstructed in São Roque; at the time it was reportedly the most expensive chapel in Europe.

The Museu de São Roque first opened to the public in 1905, located in the former Professed House of the Society of Jesus, a religious house adjoining the Church of São Roque. This church had been founded in the second half of the 16th century, as the first church of the Society of Jesus in Portugal. It kept the original name of the former shrine of São Roque, which existed in the same location. Its interior show a great and rich variety of artworks, namely azulejos, (coloured tiles), paintings, sculptures, inlaid marbles, gilt woodworks, reliquaries, etc, all of which belong nowadays to Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa [The Holy House of Mercy works]. In this church stands out the famous side Chapel of St. John the Baptist, commissioned by King John V of Portugal to Italian artists, and built in Rome between 1744 and 1747, which represents in Portugal a unique example of the late-roman baroque art.

The museum exhibits one of the most important collections of religious art in Portugal, originating from the Church of São Roque as well as from the Professed House of the Society of Jesus. This artistic heritage was donated to the Misericórdia de Lisboa by D. José I, in 1768, after the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from the national territory. Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa is a secular institution of social and philanthropic work with over 500 years helping the city population through a wide range of social and health services.

Highly prized collections of artworks as well as liturgical vestments make up the art treasure of Museu de São Roque, worth visiting next to the church.