HomeTravelThe Unexpected Southern Gothic Influences of the Lisbon Cathedral

The Unexpected Southern Gothic Influences of the Lisbon Cathedral

A true architectural masterpiece, the Lisbon Cathedral is one of the most popular attractions in Portugal’s capital. It was originally known as Church of Santa Maria Maior, and historians think that it was built right on the site of a Roman temple that ended up being converted into a church. There are traces of the latter in carved stone areas that were inserted in the north side of the cathedral’s buttress.

When you look at local travel guides like walking tours in Lisbon, you see the Lisbon Cathedral always included. Despite its popularity, there are many things that are not actually known about this European landmark. In fact, it does have similar elements to what you would see in popular Southern Gothic churches and cathedrals. This is because Portuguese settlers had a strong influence on where they landed.

The Lisbon Cathedral was built in the year 1147. It did go through many earthquakes and was renovated, restored and modified several times. Even so, many of its original elements survived. Nowadays, the cathedral features a superb mix of architectural styles, making it a national monument since 1910.

Art And Architecture Of The Lisbon Cathedral

The cathedral follows the classic Latin cross structure plan, featuring three aisles, the main chapel, an ambulatory and a transept. On its eastern side, a cloister connects to the church. When you see the main façade, you feel as if you are looking at a medieval fortress. This is due to the two towers that flank the entrance and the beautiful wall crenellations.

Many tourists are stunned by the menacing appearance of the cathedral. This is visible in many Portuguese cathedrals because during the Reconquista period, most cathedrals were also a base that was used to attack enemies during sieges.

Romanesque Influence

The first building period of the Lisbon Cathedral started in 1147 and finished in the 13th century. From that period, the cathedral still shows its rose window on the west façade. During the 20th century, it was rebuilt from remaining fragments. You can also see the lateral portal, the cathedral’s nave and the main portal.

What is particularly interesting is the portals’ Romanesque motifs in sculptured capitals. The cathedral’s nave features barrel vaulting and includes an arched gallery.

Light passes through the windows of the transept and the west façade. On the whole, the Romanesque features are mainly seen in the general structure plan, which is similar to Coimbra’s Old Cathedral.

Gothic Influence

King Denis of Portugal decided to build a brand new cloister for the Lisbon Cathedral when the 13th century was ending and the trend was Gothic style. During the 1755 earthquake, much of this cloister was damaged.
Close to the cathedral’s entry, Bartolomeu Joanes, a rich merchant, built a family funerary chapel during the 14th century. This tomb is still standing today.

After some time, it was King Alonso IV of Portugal that made the choice to replace the Romanesque apse with a Gothic main chapel. It was surrounded by a stunning ambulatory. Both he and his wife were buried in the chapel. However, the chapel and the tombs were destroyed in 1755.

What survived the earthquake was the ambulatory. It is a huge part of Portuguese Gothic architectural history and is made out of a perfect circular aisle that features radiant chapels. The ambulatory’s second story is fully covered with ribbed vaulting and feature beautiful windows.

Three beautiful Gothic tombs are featured in the ambulatory. They all date back from the middle of the 14th century and belong to Lopo Fernandes Pacheco; Maria de Vilalobos, Lopo’s wife; and an unidentified royal princess.

Southern Gothic Influence

When it comes to Southern Gothic and the fiction subgenre that appeared in American literature, we can see its influences in the way the Lisbon Cathedral is portrayed. Southern Gothic revolved around ironic, macabre events that examined Southern values. As opposed to the main genre’s tool usage suspense creation, Southern Gothic explores the social issues of the time.

With the Lisbon Cathedral, several design elements have a clear purpose of shocking. This is particularly visible in the tombs. They include Gothic elements that showcased the way in which people lived. Many tourists are surprised to notice this.

What is interesting is that the Lisbon Cathedral showcased these elements of Southern Gothic way before it was so popular. In a way, the cathedral is among the first that shows Gothic elements that critique modernity, just like the work of William Faulkner years later. While in Southern Gothic we see clear traits of Southern living, in the Lisbon Cathedral we see similar tools used to show the way in which the rich and famous lived.

Modern Influence

The last architectural influence in the development of the Lisbon Cathedral was Baroque. It all started with a sacristy being built during the 17th century. The main chapel of the cathedral was rebuilt with Rococo and neoclassical styles.

We would be amiss not to mention that in the Bartomoleu Joanes Gothic Chapel you can find a crib built by Machado de Castro, a renowned Portuguese sculptor during the 18th century. The rest of the medieval appearance of the cathedral was the result of neoclassical decorations being removed during the 20th century.

Lisbon itself is described as a city “armed with Gothic grit and glamour.” Southerners should feel right at home when visiting Portugal’s capital and the oldest and most famous church in the city.

Photo credits, from top: Cathedral exterior by Dan and interior by Kotomi_, both from Flickr Creative Commons. 

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