Our Lady of Belém: the statue Vasco da Gama prayed to before his departure

On July 8, 1497, Vasco da Gama entered the small hermitage of the Order of the Friars of Christ, knelt down and prayed to the image of Our Lady of Belém. More than five hundred years later, we can still admire this image with so much history.

The navigator prayed to the image also known as Our Lady of Restelo just before embarking on the quest that would make the world smaller. A year later, he reached India and the world became smaller.

“After we were thus equipped, of what such a voyage demands and commands, we prepared our souls for death, which always lies before the eyes of the nauts. For the supreme Power, that the ethereal Court Holds only with venerable sight, We implored favour that it might guide us And that our beginnings might aspire”.

Os Lusiadas, Chant IV

Commissioned by Prince Henry the Navigator, the image of Our Lady of Belém was in a small chapel by the river, where the ships set sail. Vasco da Gama prayed to her, and 3 years later so did Pedro Álvares Cabral, before setting sail for Brazil.

The hermitage was demolished and on the site was born what is the most impressive of Lisbon’s temples, the Jerónimos Monastery. On the other side of the city, there was a church almost as large and magnificent as this one, the Misericórdia church. Both punctuated the city and showed the wealth and power of the Portuguese of the time, with their flamboyant Manueline style dazzling as many who saw them. The Jerónimos remains one of Lisbon’s ex-libris, but the Misericórdia church (headquarters of the first of the Portuguese misericórdias) was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. Only a side chapel remains, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

In the Church of Conceição Velha, on rua da Alfândega, between Rossio and Casa dos Bicos, the image of Nossa Senhora de Belém still stands out today, even among a rich heritage. Placed on the right side of the altar, the image surprises by the virgin’s candid air, by the lightness of the hands placed in prayer and by the rich drapery of her clothes, but the visitor’s gaze is all drawn to the figure of the Child she holds in her lap.

Our Lady of Bethlehem

It is placed without being the centre, but it attracts all the visitor’s attention, even if you don’t know its history. When we look at Our Lady of Bethlehem, we also look at history. We look with the eyes of another century and, certainly, with other feelings, to an epic past.

Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral knelt at the feet of the image that we now contemplate and that, in their time, was in the Ermida de Nossa Senhora do Restelo. The navigators gathered before the image and prayed for protection before setting off on their adventures.

And, as we know, their voyages were successful and helped the kingdom to grow rich and become one of the great world powers. The Crown was so rich that King Manuel I decided to build a large monastery on the site of the Ermida.

The friars of the Order of Christ were ordered to be evicted and they took the image with them to what was the first Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição.

The Manueline portico of the Church of Conceição Velha
Little remains of the great church on the eastern side of the city

Along with the Jerónimos, King Manuel ordered another large church to be built at the opposite end of the city, in the area where Rua da Alfândega is today. The Church of Misericórdia was second only to the Jerónimos in magnificence.

Centuries passed and with them Portugal’s dominant position in world chess. Until the day dawned on November 1, 1755.

Land, sea and fire united to destroy the city. The Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição was no more than a memory and the great temple near Casa dos Bicos was irretrievably lost. Only the south façade and the side chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit and built by one of Lisbon’s most intriguing figures: D. Simoa Godinho

D. Simoa Godinho

Black, born in São Tomé, Simoa Godinho was the granddaughter of one of the first Portuguese settlers and, together with Ana de Chaves and Catarina Gomes, was part of an elite. Her family was already very wealthy, having inherited most of her grandfather’s possessions, either through her mother’s wills or those of her aunt. When she came to Lisbon and married the Portuguese nobleman Luís de Almeida, she was already a very wealthy woman.

The chapel that is now a church

Simoa Godinho was known for her charity and support to Misericórdia. When D. Manuel had the sumptuous Misericórdia Church built, D. Simoa Godinho had a side chapel erected where she would be buried together with her husband. Already a widow, she died on 25th March 1594. Two days later, she would be buried next to her husband. And there she would have rested forever, had it not been for the fateful morning of 1st November 1755.

The chapel that is now a church

Of the Misericórdia Church, as has already been said, the earthquake only spared the chapel of the Holy Spirit. With other priorities, the Pombaline plan of reconstruction of the city did not include the church. D. José decided, however, to transfer the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição to it, taking advantage of what was left over.

And this is how the old chapel becomes the Igreja da Conceição Velha. A temple whose entrance is a magnificent Manueline portico, the last remnant of the old Church of Misericórdia. Inside, the weather is Pombaline, with many mannerist elements and, of course, the beautiful image of Our Lady of Belém.

The same one to which Vasco da Gama knelt before setting off on his first voyage to India. And so this story ends just as it began.

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