Tuesday, July 23: While exploring Bairro Alto, I come across the Igreja de São Roque (Church of Saint Roch), the earliest Jesuit church in the Portuguese world, and one of the first Jesuit churches anywhere. When built in the 16th century it was the first Jesuit church designed in the “auditorium-church” style specifically for preaching.
It served as the Society’s home church in Portugal for over 200 years, before the Jesuits were expelled. After the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, the church, which survived the earthquake relatively unscathed, was given to the Charity House of Lisbon to replace their church and headquarters which had been destroyed. It remains a part of the Santa Casa today, one of its many heritage buildings (Igreja de São Roque).
After a wave of the plague swept over Lisbon in 1505, the King Manuel I (1495-1521) asked the Republic of Venice for a relic of Saint Roch, whose miracles, which helped the victims of the plague, were popular in southern Europe. In 1506, the construction of a shrine to host the relic was started in a heath outside the Fernadine wall. The churchyard of this shrine was used as a cemetery for the victims of the plague. A brotherhood was created and made responsible for maintaining devotion to the Saint and for preserving the shrine. The shrine was later demolished to build the Church of São Roque. The original relic is still preserved.
Igreja de São Roque 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), 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 chapel came about through the efforts of King Joao V (1707-1750), who promoted a vast program of grand architectural projects and works of art to show the image of a renewed and refined Portuguese state, which was not behind the main European powers of the time in any way.
The Museu de São Roque is in the space of the old Professed House of the Society of Jesus, adjoined to the Church. It holds the important collection of Italian art which was the origin of the Chapel of Saint John’s creation. In the 1930s, the exhibit expanded to include a wider variety of pieces.