The story I will tell you today is the story of one of the most beautiful churches in Lisbon and perhaps one of the least visited. But it is also the story of a queen and a promise.
The Basilica da Estrela, or Royal Basilica and Convent of the Santíssimo Coração de Jesus, is a Catholic temple and former convent of Carmelite nuns. This vast church, topped by a dome, rises on top of a hill in the west of the city, being one of the landmarks of the Lapa area.
The Basilica was born from the devotion of D Maria I, daughter of D José I (king known to have reigned at the time of the terrible Lisbon earthquake of 1755) to the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1760 when D. Maria I, still a princess, married her uncle the infant D Pedro (future D Pedro III), she vowed to the Holy Heart to build him a church and convent for the nuns of Santa Teresa, asking for the birth of a male child, who had one day to inherit the throne. D. Pedro contributes to the cause, giving the land of Casal da Estrela, in the Occidental part of Lisbon. However, from the outset a series of obstacles faced the devout princess, only overcome when she ascended the throne: technical and economic difficulties (the reconstruction of the capital was underway after the earthquake, for which Marques de Pombal had made available all means), as well as religious reasons, since the cult of the Sacred Heart, besides being controversial, was not accepted by Catholic orthodoxy, because it “revalued the human nature of Christ over the divine” which implied an almost radical change in the mentality and way of facing the dogmas of the Church of the time. In fact, only Pope Pius VI, at the end of the 18th century, will approve it.
The wish of the Queen was fulfilled and the construction of the temple started in 1779. Unfortunately, however, the boy, baptised as D. José, died of smallpox, two years before the construction was finished, in 1790. D Maria decided to move forward still with her promise and completed the construction of the church.
The project was in charge of architects from the Mafra School. The temple has characteristics of the late Baroque and neoclassical style.The façade is flanked by two twin towers and decorated in the center with a relief representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus with statues of saints (Saint Elias, Sainte Theresa de Ávila, Saint John da Cruz and Sainte Maria Madalena de Pazzi) and allegorical figures (Faith , Devotion, Gratitude and Liberality), by Joaquim Machado de Castro and his pupils.
The large interior, in grey, pink and yellow marble, illuminated by openings in the dome, instills respectful awe. Several paintings by Pompeo Batoni adorn its interior. The empire style tomb, by D. Maria I, who died in Brazil, is in the right transept. Closed in a room nearby, there is an extraordinary crib by Machado de Castro, formed by more than 500 figures of cork and terracotta.
The Basilica da Estrela was the first church in the world dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Queen Maria I is the only Portuguese monarch of the Bragança dynasty (except for King Pedro IV of Portugal, emperor of Brazil, who is buried in the city of São Paulo) who is not in the Pantheon of the Dynasty of Bragança, but in the Basilica da Estrela, which she herself built.