The scale of the tragedy that struck Lisbon on the first day of November resonated with intensity in sermons, historical news, engravings, and paintings throughout Europe. In face of such an unprecedented catastrophe, there was an attempt to interpret the meaning of the cataclysm that combined the earthquake, fire, and flood to sow death and raze houses, palaces, and churches.
In a second moment, the figurative tile panels of the hermitage of Senhor dos Navegantes and Nossa Senhora da Glória, commissioned for new temples, represent the story of how society responded to this enormous adversity. As it can be read in one of the panels of the Ermida dos Navegantes:
In the year 1757, governing the Church of God, the serene Father Benedito XIV, and reigning in Portugal D. José I, the eminent cardinal D. José, the second patriarch of Lisbon, gave permission for this hermitage of Senhor Jesus dos Navegantes and Senhora da Caridade to be erected. After the temple was blessed by order of the same prelate, their zealous brothers transferred these images with a large procession and solemnity in the year aforementioned.
The panels, made by the workshop led by Valentim de Almeida and Sebastião de Almeida, show the devoted procession that brought the sacred images of Our Lady and the Jesus Christ to the new chapel. The city still shows signs of the earthquake, and in the background, we can see the primitive chapel that housed the images in the early days.
Caring for religious practice was not a spontaneous movement. As early as November 3, the patriarchal curia ordered the friars and parish priests to persuade “the people that among all acts of Christian piety, with which the Divine Justice can be appeased, it was the most meritorious to bury the dead promptly.” They also ordered portable altars to be erected in the fields, so that it was possible to continue the celebration of masses.
As happened regularly, natural disasters were interpreted as a divine punishment that, in its omnipotence, affected everyone, without discriminating against any profession or social status. In the words of Francisco de Pina e Melo’s poem-admonition:
General, priest, layman, friar, / Bound by the fatal calamity / Minister, poor, rich, gentleman, / Merchant, soldier, laborer, / Miserable, happy, bored, / To everyone speaks the trembling groan / All equals, everyone weighs, / In this sharp cry of nature.
One of the most striking facts of the apocalyptic earthquake was that many believers were buried or burned during the masses on the morning of All Saints’ Day. In the poem that Voltaire dedicated to the Lisbon tragedy, this was a central argument to challenge the idea of the existence of a divine providence that could order such a cruel punishment. As the French philosopher pointed out, there was no clear path of justice: Lisbonne est abîmée, et l’on danse à Paris.
Few ideas could be more dangerous than the doubt about the existence of a natural order or a previous plan designed by God for the history of humanity. As is well known, the definition of national identity or the role of Portugal in the world was grounded on the notion of the chosen people with a divine mission. Unsurprisingly, in the Portuguese capital, the destruction of churches was understood as an evident sign of divine displeasure.
In João Bezerra de Lima’s sermon, his first published poem, the destruction of temples is represented as a fully coherent act. The divine anger against the dissolute city in effect forced Him also to abandon the temples, condemning them to ruin:
Do not even ask, O wretched city, why the Eternal Creator has caused the Temples to suffer such damage, having David said that no punishment would come to their homes. And because, it seems, that you were left to be ruined, and burned because He was angry with your inhabitants, it could destroy and consume your Palaces and buildings but leave the Temples free, as dedicated to Himself, to Mary, and to the Saints, who were stripped of the thrones, that Portuguese piety had erected for them. Because He will answer you: Do you not see that the abominations of your inhabitants are such that they force Me to flee from Altars. What are temples for if I will not attend them?
The lack of rigorous practice of religious ceremonies has been also associated with the destruction of the temples. On December 2, the first diocesan pastoral ordered to redouble the care for the temples, to avoid abuses, scandals, and disorders, so punished by the earthquake and the voracity of the fire. For that reason, on the tile panels of the chapels, the saint sculptures were accompanied by lamps in the procession, followed by well-dressed believers in fervent and respectful manners. In these iconographic programs, the memory of the tragedy was a request for mercy, a new and redoubled commitment to the expression of religious worship, and a reaffirmation of the belief in divine providence.
LIMA, João António Bezerra de. Declamação sagrada na ruina de Lisboa, causada pelo terremoto do primeiro de Novembro de 1755, e pelo incendio, que se lhe seguio. Lisboa: Oficina Patriarcal de Francisco Luiz Ameno, 1757.
MARQUES, João Francisco. “A acção da Igreja no terramoto de Lisboa de 1755: ministério espiritual e pregação” in Lusitania Sacra, n. 18, pp. 219-329.
MELO, Francisco de Pina e. Ao terremoto do primeiro de Novembro de 1755, parenesis. Lisboa: Oficina Manoel Soares, 1756.
VOLTAIRE. Poèmes sur le desastre de Lisbonne, et sur la loi naturelle. Amsterdam: Etienne Ledet, 1756.