The Lisbon Misericórdia: From its Foundation to its Establishment at São Roque

By Museu de São Roque

Nowadays, everyone knows the Lisbon
Misericórdia (Mercy), frequently referred to as just Santa Casa (holy house), but few people know about
this institution’s beginnings and its more than 520 years of history: what lay behind
its foundation, what its principles are, how it was structured, in which areas it
was active and how it subsisted at a time when there was no social gambling.

Our Lady of Mercy (Late 16th century) by Domingos Vieira SerrãoMuseu de São Roque

The emergence of the Misericórdia in
a changing Lisbon

The Lisbon that witnessed the birth of the first Portuguese Misericórdia was a city undergoing major changes, with important urban and social reforms being promoted by King Manuel I. The capital was transformed from a peripheral city into one of the world’s leading trading centres. Commerce brought wealth, but it also brought social problems, due to the rapid growth in the city’s population.

St. Auta Altarpiece (16th century) by Unknown Portuguese masterMNAA National Museum of Ancient Art

In 1498, during the regency of Queen Leonor, the widow of João II and the sister of Manuel I – who was absent at that time in Spain – the confraternity of the Misericórdia was founded in Lisbon.

Stained glass window, King D. Manuel I, Vasco da Gama and Saint Jerome (1939) by Ricardo Leone (studio)Jerónimos Monastery

Its creation was not an autonomous decision taken by his sister Leonor alone. The king would be aware, since, as soon as he returned, he promoted the creation of this type of confraternity all around the country. Starting, in 1499, with the encouragement for the creation of the Misericórdia of Porto

Portrait of a man (assumed to be Vasco da Gama) (16th century) by Unknown authorMNAA National Museum of Ancient Art

In the same year that the Lisbon Misericórdia was created, the maritime route to India was discovered. The Misericórdias would later accompany the Portuguese overseas expansion and spread to many cities of the newly-founded empire.

Saint Francis Xavier preaching in Goa (1610) by André ReinosoMuseu de São Roque

Manueline Lisbon became a hub and a meeting place for people from all over Portugal and the world.

Rhinoceros (1515) by Albrecht DürerBritish Museum

It was also possible to see exotic animals there, originating, above all, from India.

Panorama of Jerusalem (1517) by Flemish schoolNational Azulejo Museum

But this influx of people brought problems to a city that was still medieval, and there were frequent outbreaks of plagues and other diseases. There was also a great deal of poverty and the city was filled with uprooted people who wandered around the city, unable to set sail for the Indies.

Such a context proved favourable for the application of the ideals of devotio moderna, the religious reform movement followed by Queen Leonor, who was a great admirer of Thomas Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.

Triptych of Our Lady of Mercy (16th century) by Jan ProvoostMNAA National Museum of Ancient Art

The Misericórdias were therefore in perfect harmony with the religious practices of their time. The influence of a militant faith that also encouraged lay persons to imitate Christ in their works and actions can be clearly seen in the foundational text of the Misericórdias: the Compromisso.

Our Lady of Mercy (Late 16th century) by Domingos Vieira SerrãoMuseu de São Roque

The singularity of the Lisbon Misericórdia
and the expansion of its model

When the Portuguese Misericórdias were founded in the late fifteenth century, the new orientations of the Catholic faith were well-known in Portugal. These changes came from the previous century and were already having a major impact on religious practices elsewhere in Europe.

The Virgin of Mercy, from the Church of Our Lady, Ravensburg (c. 1480) by Michel Erhart or Friedrich SchrammBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Although it is widely known that its foundation was inspired by the Italian Misericordias, the fact that the Lisbon Misericórdia adopted all of the 14 works of mercy, and not just one of them, points to a unique combination of the religious practices in Tuscany and Flanders.

The Seven Acts of Mercy (1607) by Michelangelo Merisi detto CaravaggioPio Monte della Misericordia

From its very outset, the Compromisso of the confraternity of the Misericórdia established that the brotherhood had been created so that "all of the 14 works of mercy should be fulfilled, both the spiritual and the corporal".

The seven spiritual works were:
1.To instruct the ignorant;
2.To give good counsel to those who seek it; 3.To admonish with charity those who do wrong;
4.To console the sad and disconsolate;
5.To forgive those who have done us wrong;
6.To bear wrongs with patience;
7.To pray to God for the living and the dead.

The seven corporal works of mercy represented here were...

1. To bury the dead;

2. To visit the prisoners and 3. To give food to the hungry.

4. To give drink to the thirsty. In the picture, we see a representation of Samson quenching his thirst.

5. To clothe the naked. In the picture, we see, St. Martin of Tours offering his cape to a naked man.

6. To cure the sick. In the same scene, next to the naked man is a beggar displaying mobility difficulties.

7. To give shelter to the pilgrims and the poor. A man is guiding St. James the Greater, dressed in his typical pilgrim’s clothes.

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy (17th century) by Teniers, David the youngerDulwich Picture Gallery

It is, above all, the Compromisso of the Lisbon Misericórdia, dating from 1502, that provides us with a more exact idea of the way that this brotherhood operated. At the head, there were: 13 brothers, a purveyor and 12 counsellors, who, were supposed to imitate the Christ's apostles.

Sceptre of the Provedor of Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa (16th century (late) - 17th century (early)) by UnknownMuseu de São Roque

Of the 12 counsellors, six had to be noblemen, while the other six were artisans. The purveyor or head of the confraternity was always to be a man of noble origin. These 13 brothers were elected for a period of just one year, a procedure that was maintained until the reign of King José I (1750-1777)

Namban folding screens (17th century) by Seal of Kano NaizenMNAA National Museum of Ancient Art

These unique characteristics of the Portuguese Misericórdias (including the extension of the works of mercy to 14 in number) were spread all across the world. According to Charles Boxer "the misericórdias and the municipal councils were the twin pillars of Portuguese colonial society".

Our Lady of Mercy (Late 16th century) by Domingos Vieira SerrãoMuseu de São Roque

The first headquarters built from scratch 

Headquartered in a chapel at the Lisbon Cathedral, The Misericórdia, with the patronage of the king and supported by the revenue from the sugar plantations in Madeira, it soon moved to its own headquarters, built in the Manueline style and entirely from scratch, in the city’s new centre: the riverside district known as the Ribeira.

Interior of the Chapel of Terra Solta, Lisbon Cathedral (2014) by NAM/SCMLMuseu de São Roque

Like most of the other confraternities of that time, the Lisbon Misericórdia originally had its headquarters in a chapel in a church, in this case the Terra Solta chapel. However, the growth of the confraternity and its importance in Lisbon society, led to its being established in new premises.

Grand panorama of Lisbon - downtown, castle and eastern zone (1700) by Gabriel Del Barco (attrib.)National Azulejo Museum

In this way, in 1534, it was endowed with a space that had its own church, and already the first people began to be cared for and looked after there. The church itself was essential for fulfilling the pious legacies of the benefactors (the celebration of masses in honour of the dead).

‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ (16th century) by João de CastilhoJerónimos Monastery

The Misericórdia church was one of the city’s most splendid religious buildings, together with the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, according to some of the most illustrious personalities of that time, such as Francisco de Holanda and Damião de Góis.

Manueline façade of the Church of Conceição Velha (2015) by NAM/SCMLMuseu de São Roque

The Lisbon Misericórdia was associated with the image of Our Lady of Mercy, who protects everyone under her cloak: women and men, generally separated into the different classes of that time, the people, the clergy, the nobility and the monarchy.

Processional banner - Our Lady of Mercy (front) (1784) by Bernardo Pereira Pegado (front); Manuel Pereira Pegado (back)Museu de São Roque

It was only in 1576, when Ruy de Távora was the purveyor, that the iconography of the banners and flags of the Lisbon Misericórdia was fully established. Strict rules then began to be laid down regarding the use of the image of Our Lady of Mercy.

On one side, there was to be a representation of a king and queen, in memory of King Manuel I and Queen Leonor, the institution’s founders, together with some figures representing the brothers of the Misericórdia.

On the other side would be a pope, a cardinal, a bishop and a monk from the Order of the Holy Trinity, with the initials FMI: Frei Miguel Contreiras Instituidor.

Our Lady of Mercy (Late 16th century) by Domingos Vieira SerrãoMuseu de São Roque

The move to the former Jesuit
complex of São Roque

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 seriously affected the city’s riverside district, where the headquarters of the Lisbon Misericórdia was located. Four years later, when the Jesuits were suppressed and expelled from the country, the new premises became available. Thus, in 1768, the Misericórdia was established in the buildings that formed the complex of São Roque.

Lisbon Earthquake (1850)LIFE Photo Collection

On the 1st of November 1755, Lisbon is hit by a strong earthquake, the riverside area, is one of the most affected, not only by the shock but also by a tidal wave which was followed by a fire that hit a large part of the city.

Saint Francis Xavier taking leave of King John III (1635) by José Avelar RebeloMuseu de São Roque

After the earthquake, Portugal witnessed times of great unrest and intrigue. In 1758, the Jesuits, who played a fundamental role in Portuguese society, were expelled from the country, being accused of conspiring against King José I. Their vast built heritage became the Crown’s property.

Portrait of King José I (c.1760-1770) by UnknownMafra National Palace

In 1768, José I gave the Jesuit complex of São Roque to the Lisbon Misericórdia. The king took possession of the land occupied by the ruins of the former church of the Misericórdia in the Ribeira for his own use and later installed there the Conceição Velha church of the Friars of Christ.

Church of Sao Roque - view of the Main AltarMuseu de São Roque

The Misericórdia, which still retained possession of a large part of the land where its headquarters had stood in the Ribeira, receiving rental income from its use, was endowed with a space that had remained practically intact and a large-sized church, thus enabling it to fulfil its pious legacies.

Annunciation (1555) by UnknownMuseu de São Roque

The institution’s proximity to Bairro Alto, a residential quarter where there were various places of prostitution, enabled the Misericórdia to respond prontly to one of the scourges of eighteenth-century Lisbon society: the abandonment of children, who would later be placed in the foundling wheel.

Some of the works of art presented here can be visited at the Museu de São Roque. Some of them are linked to the history of the Misericórdia, while others form part of the artistic heritage of the Jesuits of São Roque, and yet others result from donations made by benefactors.

Credits: Story

Gonçalo de Carvalho Amaro
Museu de São Roque

John Elliott

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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