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The Panteao Nacional Lisbon is a beautiful and unique church that acts as the national pantheon of Portugal and the final burial location for many important Portuguese. The church is situated in the Alfama district of Lisbon and the massive white dome is a prominent feature of the skyline of eastern Lisbon.
Looking down at the Alter in the Santa Engrácia
The church has experienced a turbulent history since its 16th century foundation, with a curse that it would never be completed, a destructive collapse and countless financial struggles, yet it was finally inaugurated in 1966. For visitors the interior provides a stunning symmetrical design that is best viewed from the higher reaches of the dome, while the exterior terrace provides wonderful panoramic views over ancient Alfama and the Rio Tejo estuary.
The national pantheon is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10:00 and 17:00 and as with many of Lisbon’s national monuments the Panteao Nacional is closed on Mondays. The entrance fee is 3.00 but is free on Sunday mornings and national holidays. The closest metro station is Santo Apolonia (blue metro line) but this requires a 10 minute uphill walk. Tram 28, which cuts through the centre of Alfama, provides an easier walk and visitors need to disembark at the Saint Vicente Monastery.
This section of Alfama is best explored on a Saturday or Tuesday mornings when it can be combined with the Feira da Ladra market, an enjoyable flee market. A typical visit to the Panteao Nacional Lisbon last around 30 minutes, with the majority of the time spent at the higher levels. There is no elevator to the top of the dome and if you struggle with heights or mobility this is not the tourist attraction for you.
The white Pantheon high above Lisbon
The following is a brief suggested tour of the Santa Engracia church, if you are a visitor who prefers to explore in their own manner please skip this section to read the interesting history of the Panteao Nacional. On entering the Panteao Nacional via the ticket desk (3.00) it is recommended to take the first exit on the left and climb the six flights of stairs to the top level. At this level a walk way skirts around the internal perimeter of the dome and this vantage point provides magnificent views (and photo opportunities) of the symmetrical floor patterns.
The floor as viewed from the upper levels
This location illustrates the unique Greek cross floor plan of the national pantheon (as opposed to Latin cross floor plan). The Panteao Nacional consists of four short equal length wings converging beneath the dome whereas the common Latin design has three short wings and a single long wing where the congregation and aisles are positioned. The other striking feature of the interior is the repeating and symmetrical pattern, there are no decorative statue filled side recesses and the entire complexes appears minimalistic. This design style follows traditional Islamic conventions and is truly unique within Lisbon’s churches.
The view from over Alfama and the River Tejo
The dome level exits out on to the wide terrace, which provides panoramic views over the ramshackle and crumbling streets of Alfama. Unfortunately the positioning of the church does not provide any views over any other significant monuments of Lisbon apart from the rear of the Saint Vicente Monastery and the working docks. On a clear day the 15km Vasco da Gama Bridge can be viewed stretching across the Tejo estuary while to the north is the park and streets where the Feira da Ladra market is held.
On climbing down and entering the main chamber the 18th century organ is the main feature of the ground level and this stands above the very simplistic alter. The organ originated in the Se Cathedral but was transferred in the 1940s. In the central room there are six cenotaphs belonging to Portugal’s most notable historical figures and each contains a well write English description of their history and importance. There are a further three anti chambers filled with a total of ten of the identical sarcophagus while the fourth outer room has been converted into the shop.
The original Santa Engracia church was commissioned by Princess Maria in 1570 and became the religious centre for the Slaves of the Holy Sacrament, a powerful and wealthy religious sec.
On the 15th of January 1630 the interior of the church was desecrated with all images, statues and religious objects destroyed and significant damage inflicted to the interior of the church. The powerful holy slaves pinned the blame on an extreme faction called the Nova Christians and a member, Simon Solis, was accused of the act. Simon had a strong alibi as he had spent the night courting a women and there were a number of solid witnesses but this did not prevent him being executed as a heretic on a burning pry. During his final days he cursed the church that the restoration work would never be completed and this threat almost came true.
The Holy Slaves were not content with just simply restoring the Santa Engracia church, they had grand plans to utterly rebuild the church. This reconstruction would have easily been completed had it not been for the 17th century restoration wars, the long struggle for Portugal to gain independence from Spain, which sapped the religious orders funds.
In 1681 while the project was on hold awaiting funds, the unsupported chapel collapsed brining most of the structure crashing to the ground. The construction was restarted 5 years later under the direction of the royal architect, Jaoa Antunes and he is credited for the unique Greek cross design and geometric symmetry.
On his death the dome had not been completed due to funding woes and further doubts were raised about the ability of the structure to support such a massive dome. This is how the half-finished church remained for almost 200 years, with architects and financiers unwilling to risk the church. During this period the Panteao Nacional gained a reputation with Lisbon’s residents that this was the project which would never be finished.
With the 1910 revolution the project was re-instigated as a symbolic gesture that the new regime would finish the previous monarchies failings. The Panteao Nacional was declared a national monument before the construction was completed in 1966. The church was converted into the National pantheon in 1916 and the tombs of many important rulers and historical figures were interned here.