The oldest and most important church in Lisbon is its cathedral, the Santa Maria Maior. The Sé, as it’s commonly referred to, was built in 1147, immediately after the city was conquered by the Christians. We checked it out after having visited the National Pantheon in the nearby church of Santa Engrácia.
Friends had warned us that the Cathedral wasn’t very impressive, despite its age and history. And upon entering, we decided that they were probably right. The church is dark, and doesn’t pack the same punch as the Engrácia or the São Roque, for example. But the more time we spent inside, allowing our eyes to adjust to the light filtering in through the rose glass window, the more we found to appreciate.
Also, it’s safe to assume that, if you leave the Sé unimpressed, it’s because you skipped the ambulatory, cloister and treasury. This is understandable; these sections cost €4, and if you weren’t bowled over by the church itself, why would you pay extra? But they turn a mediocre experience into something memorable.
The cloister is 50% archaeological site, 50% collection of abandoned chapels, and 100% atmospheric. The archaeological dig in the center of the cloister looks as though it’s been going on forever, and is covered by an opaque ceiling that casts the yard in a beautifully strange yellow light. There have been finds here from the very earliest days of Lisbon, with roads and structures from the time of the Moors and Romans laying exposed. The various chapels which surround the cloister don’t contain anything especially noteworthy, but the crumbling old graves and statues add immensely to the sense of the cathedral’s staggering age.
Likewise, a visit to the treasury is rewarding. First, you can walk out onto the mezzanine, directly in front of the large rose window which depicts Jesus and his twelve disciples. Then, there’s the collection itself, full of priceless objects like jewels and glittering, golden monstrances. Amazing… although, it’s always puzzled me why an organization that’s constantly begging for donations would, at the same time, so brazenly show off its wealth.