If you are in Lisbon in the month of June, during the festivities of Saint Anthony, you will probably come across a throne. Not that of a king, but that of the Saint. An ancient tradition that is hardly maintained, at least in its most traditional form.
The throne is a kind of staircase where on the top there is the statue of St. Anthony and on the stairs other saints, or married couples (St. Anthony is a casamenteiro saint, you have to pray to him when you are looking for a husband / wife) . And the throne of Saint Anthony is built for the feast of the Saint and then destroyed at the end of June with the conclusion of the feast.
But in Alfama there are thrones that are not taken apart, which remain on display all year round, and they are those of João.
In the small garden of his house, where he has lived since 1998, various decorations are combined, all different, which are the expression of a world to be discovered and of moments that are part of João’s life and his story, which he agrees to tell us.
The first question, unavoidable, is where does this strong passion for building thrones come from. Definitely from the desire to put into practice an innate talent for DIY, but above all from the love for traditions and for the feast of Saint Anthony.
His passion, he tells us, begins as a child, when with 7/8 years he kept company with his aunt who built a throne for the Saint near her shop.
And João had the right to be with her, proud next to the throne, elegantly dressed to honor the Saint and the party. And he could also go around asking for “a coin for Saint Anthony”.
This tradition began in the 18th century when, after the terrible earthquake of 1755, money was collected to rebuild the church of the Saint. In modern times, João tells us, these coins were used to buy candies, cookies or other sweets.
And it is to his childhood that his first memory of the throne is linked. And this passion has never stopped since then. He started building them for the festival, then for his children (who sometimes pretended they had built it) and then he continued for passion.
Although he did not do anything for work that had to do with art and craftsmanship, João seems to have done nothing else in his life.
He takes about thirty minutes to assemble a throne, he explains to us, but what matters and requires work is the preparation of the structure, of the elements that compose it.
His thrones have become so famous that a few days ago he was invited to a Sunday broadcast on the Sic channel. And of course he is very proud of it. He was able to show live how he creates these small pieces of art. And the Lisbon Cultural Agenda dedicated a page of his article on thrones to him. “A little celebrity” – we tell him.
João is proud to present his works to us: there is the most classic throne with the Saint, the most decorated one, there is the spectacular one dedicated to Amalia, last year, on the centenary of her birth. A throne in which the work of Vhils “Calçada” which represents the face of Amalia made on the Portuguese calcada (and which you can admire in Largo de Sao Tomé ed.) become the basis of a throne where the typical Portuguese cobblestone pavement is the master; there is a lamppost, and on top a Portuguese guitar, that of Fado. And of course Saint Anthony on the top.
With the pandemic, the popular festivals were suspended and then João felt even stronger the desire to carry on this tradition anyway.
“Everything is born with an idea and then I start creating,” João tells us. This passion for art has inherited his daughter, one of his five children. Two have left Portugal, one for England and the other for Spain.
His children are also linked to traditions, they also participated in popular marches (which are held every year on June 12th on the Avenida da Liberdade Ed.) but for different neighborhoods.
I’m surprised. “How, not for Alfama?”.
And João explains to us that sometimes Alfama does not pamper his “children” as she should. That the times when this neighborhood was a big family, without envy or jealousy, seems to be a distant memory. The memory of a cheerful neighborhood, animated by children who are fewer and fewer today. And so also a tradition such as the throne, which is created especially for the youngest of the family, begins to get lost. Or it becomes a commercial object, explains João, in shop windows, to promote the products on sale.
But the throne is another thing and it is what João tries to promote and preserve. And many people in the neighborhood have asked him to keep these works and his small garden now looks almost like a museum, where his thrones are on display all year round.
But the thrones are not the only work that João makes.
“The world of art and entertainment fascinates me” he confesses. And he shows us a vase in the window, made with a fake leg complete with a garter (sewn by him of course).
He tells us how he wanted to create something with this piece of mannequin and then he had thought of the Moulin Rouge and the Can Can dancers and had decided to transform that leg into something original, unusual, his personal homage to the world of entertainment.
But there is still something that attracts our attention in his small garden: a statue, perhaps Saint Anthony, perhaps not. Certainly a Franciscan, with his head covered.
But what strikes us most is the story.
João tells us that this statue he found near the waste, broken sideways, ruined, and he wanted to recover it, but he couldn’t. He then found it in the nearby viewpoint and therefore thought that the statue now had a new location.
Days later the statue was there again, abandoned in the garbage. Then João had not hesitated, he had recovered, repaired, repainted it and given it the place of honor in his small garden.
And then he confesses that in reality that statue had reminded him of a person, a hermit monk, dressed in white, who had represented a father for him, who had been a guide for him (one of his sons bears his name) and who died in the same year as Amalia (1999), leaving a great void in his life.
And when that statue appeared, it was like a sign to him that he couldn’t ignore; he had to take her home.
Before leaving us, João tells us that his art also extends to Nativities, which he does not exhibit because he does not want anyone to damage them as has happened with some thrones.
And then he promises that he will show them to us someday.
In the meantime, we have to “settle” for his small open-air museum which proudly preserves one of the oldest popular traditions in Lisbon.