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The bland facade of the Igreja de Sao Roque hides one of the most exquisite and decorative churches of Lisbon, and possibly Portugal. Inside the white washed church and adjoined museum are some of the finest examples of Jesuit sacred art and the beautiful chapel Saint John the Baptist. If a tourist was to only visit the interior of one church in Lisbon the Igreja de Sao Roque would be the church of choice.
The Igreja de Sao Roque is open between 9:30-5:00 every day and there is no entrance fee. The Museum of Igreja de Sao Roque is open every day except for Mondays and is open from 10:00 until 18:00 with later opening on Thursdays between 14:00-21:00. The entrance fee for the museum is €2.50 but is free on Sundays until 14:00. The closest metro station is Baixa-Chiado but this involves a walk up a steep hill.
The Igreja de Sao Roque was originally a shrine which housed a relic from Sao Roque (Saint Rocco or Saint Roch). Sao Roque (1295-1327) was canonized for his healing of plague victims and his feasts day commemorated on the 16 August. After Sao Roque’s death he became a symbol for the protection from the Black Death plague which ravaged much of Europe.
King Manuel I of Portugal believed that a relic from Saint Roque would protect Lisbon and he constructed a small shire to the west of Lisbon to house the relic. The holy relic provided little protection for Lisbon which suffered horrendously at the hands of the plague.
The shire remained of little importance until the latter half of the 16th century when the chapel became gathering location for the Society of Jesus (Jesuit) which followed the philosophy of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The devotion and money of the society transformed the humble shrine of Sao Roque into one of the most significant and decorative churches of Lisbon.
The Igreja de Sao Roque was the first Jesuit church constructed in Portugal and one of the earliest anywhere in the world. The church served as the Jesuit’s main religious centre for over 200 years, during this time there were several significant decorative improvements which gives the interior of the church its varied styles and different types of artworks that including gilt wood, glazed tiles and Florentine mosaics.
The most significant addition to the Igreja de Sao Roque was the construction of the chapel Saint John the Baptist, commissioned by King John V in 1742, which is considered to be a masterpiece of 18th century European art. The chapel, apart from being beautiful, is unique in that it was constructed twice; first in Rome to be blessed by Pope Benedict XIV then dismantled, transported to Lisbon and rebuilt in the Igreja de Sao Roque.
Over the 200 years the Jesuit Society had grown in power and influence to such an extent that the Marquis of Pombal forced the society out of Portugal in the late 18th century fearing its influence in government. The Igreja de Sao Roque managed to survive the devastation earthquake of 1755, one of only a handful of buildings in the westerly districts not to be completely destroyed.
In 1905, the Museum of the Treasure of the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist was created adjoining the church, with the purpose of showing to the public the important baroque goldsmiths and religious vestments collection and the chapel of Saint John the Baptist.