Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 16, 2006
Ravens guarded St. Vincent's body
Third century martyr shares cathededral's honour with Our Lady
Saint Vincent – January 22
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Those who visit the imposing cathedral in Portugal's capital of Lisbon and opt to pay the small fee for entry to the adjacent historical cloisters are in for a surprise.
Instead of a neatly landscaped quadrangle with pathways and well-tended, geometrical flower beds and lawns beneath welcoming shade trees, they find an enormous hole in the ground.
It's the scene of important and amazing archaeological discoveries that show that the cathedral, ancient as it is, was not the first construction here.
The episcopal seat, or more properly the Paroquc ia de Santa Maria Maior, Se Catedral de Lisboa, is a fortress-like Romanesque building with crenulated ramparts for defence and walls solid enough to have resisted a series of earthquakes. It was built in 1147 in the central Alfama district between famous St. George Castle and the Tagus River.
An impressive building inside, it's characterized by an unusual three-nave plan, with a transept and 10 small chapels off the ambulatory. Some of these display gisants (reclining sculptures) on the tombs of prominent Portuguese historic personages. The central shrine honours Mary Major, patron of the cathedral, with a statue clothed in golden robes and carrying the Christ Child.
Although the church honours Our Lady, images of St. Vincent are much in evidence. Apparently the third century martyr is a traditional patron of the cathedral as well as being Lisbon's official saint. Vincent of Saragossa's biography, although colourfully embellished, tells us that he was a youthful deacon under St. Valerius in present-day eastern Spain.
He was arrested during the persecutions of Roman Emperor Diocletian at nearby Valencia where, after enduring a variety of tortures, he died and his body, weighted down with a millstone, was thrown into the Mediterranean Sea.
Miraculously, his remains surfaced on the opposite side of the Iberian Peninsula on Cape St. Vincent at Portugal's southwest Atlantic Ocean corner.
Two ravens are said to have guarded the saint's body until it could be transported to Lisbon by sea. For this reason, St. Vincent the Deacon is often portrayed in church art with the palm frond of martyrdom and a model sailing ship.
A celebratory year to commemorate the 1,700th anniversary of his martyrdom ended Jan. 22, 2005. He is honoured in the first of the cathedral's ambulatory chapels in a large painting showing the humble deacon performing obeisance before Christ who is awarding him the cherished palm frond.
The cloisters, attached to the rear of the cathedral, also include on two sides, off semi-enclosed Romanesque galleries, a series of small chapels dedicated to different saints and appellations of Our Lady.
Today, visitors are provided with a brochure that identifies the various shrines and describes what can be seen from walkways constructed around and over the central archaeological excavation.
Originally, the dig was intended to unearth and obtain information about an earlier, post-Moorish cathedral on the site, and perhaps to confirm the existence of a mosque here.
The cathedral foundations were uncovered, but instead of the remains of a mosque, those of an Augustinian period Roman temple were discovered.
Mass is celebrated daily at 6:30 p.m. in the cathedral and at 11:30 a.m. on Sundays, while the cloisters are open daily, except for Sundays and feast days.
St. Anthony's birthplace
Visitors to the cathedral usually also go to the preserved birthplace of St. Anthony of Lisbon (Padua) in the adjacent church dedicated to this secondary city patron.
Nearby are the crooked, narrow streets of the old Alfama district and, for those up to the climb, a tour of the city's citadel of Sao Jorge or the Tagus waterfront a few blocks in the other direction.