01 March 2015

Visiting Lisbon and rediscovering
the Land of the Discoverers

Sailing on the River Tagus on a sunny afternoon in Lisbon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I had forgotten that Portuguese explorers had once sailed around the Cape and that the great explorers included Henry the Navigator, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama. I had forgotten that Portugal once had an empire that lasted for six centuries and that included Macau, East Timor, parts of India, Mozambique and Angola in Africa, the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic and Brazil in Latin America. I had forgotten the Portuguese capital had given its name to Lisbon Treaty that shapes the present European Union.

I had failed to realise that Lisbon is the most westerly European capital, is one of the most visited European cities, is a centre of culture and has one of the most pleasant climates in Europe.

Did I know that Portugal had a Celtic legacy to rival any of the so-called Celtic countries? Or that Portuguese, with 220 million speakers, is the fifth most spoken language in the world, the third most spoken language in Europe?

In the back my mind, I thought Portugal was a Mediterranean country, but it has no Mediterranean coastline and Lisbon is the only European capital on the Atlantic coast. I associated Portugal with sun holidays on the Algarve, forgetting it has a rich historical and cultural legacy.

I linked Portugal with Europe’s “PIGS” economies – Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain – not realising that Lisbon has one of the ten highest GDP figures for European cities.

Whatever I had known or forgotten, Portugal was a distant place … until I unexpectedly found myself on the short flight to Lisbon for a few unplanned days marking a family anniversary.

Sé Cathedral crowns one of the hills in the heart of Alfama (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I arrived at Portela Airport, and stayed close to the city centre beside Eduardo VII Park, which runs down Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s main avenue, with its tropical, subtropical and flowering plants and green spaces. It was named after Britain’s King Edward VII, who visited Lisbon in 1903.

The summer season lasts from May to October, and Lisbon has the warmest winters in Europe. Even in March, April and November the average daytime temperature is 18.9 C, and although it was early November, it felt like late summer, so it was warm enough to spend an afternoon sailing on the River Tagus.

Lisbon’s traditional yellow trams are a popular way to see the city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lisbon’s far-reaching public transport network allowed us to travel throughout the city and its suburbs during those few days, using trains, buses and the traditional yellow trams to see the city and its suburbs.

An ancient city

Looking across Lisbon from the ramparts of the Castle of São Jorge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I realised Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, older perhaps than London, Paris or Rome. Legend says the city was founded by Odysseus or Ulysses after he escaped from Troy. Latin mapmakers and historians knew Lisbon as Ulyssippo or Olisippo, and in the Classical Greek world it was known as Olissipo (Ὀλισσιπών) or Olissipona (Ὀλισσιπόνα).

Phoenician and Roman remains have been found on the site of Sé Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Certainly, the story of Lisbon goes back to Phoenician times, when traders called the place Allis Ubbo, or “safe harbour.” Archaeological evidence suggests there was a Phoenician trading post on the slopes of the castle hill from about 1200 BC, close to the sheltered harbour in the estuary of the River Tagus, and Phoenician remains from the eighth century BC have been found on the site of the mediaeval Sé Cathedral.

After the defeat of Hannibal, Olissipo was integrated into the Roman Empire as part of the province of Lusitania, and it was known to Julius Caesar as Olissipo Felicitas Julia. The Roman remains included walls, a theatre, baths, temples, a forum and a necropolis, and the city became a centre of trade with Roman Britain and the Rhine.

Christianity arrived at an early stage; the first-known Bishop was Potamius (ca 356), and the early martyrs included Maxima, Verissimus and Eulalia.

The barbarians arrived with the fall of the Roman Empire and Lisbon was occupied by Sarmatians, Alans and Vandals, and later by the Germanic Suebi who were integrated into the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo.

Moors, Crusaders and explorers

A statue of Saint George at the Castle of São Jorge recalls the Crusaders who captured the city from the Moors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lisbon fell to the Moors in 711, but large Christian and Jewish communities continued to live and trade in the city. In 1108 the city was raided by Norwegian Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land, but it was retaken by the Moors in 1111. Lisbon’s Islamic heritage is still visible in the Alfama, the oldest surviving quarter, which takes its name from the Arabic al-hamma, meaning fountains or baths. Alfama spreads down the southern slope from the Castle of São Jorge to the River Tagus, and extends west to the Baixa quarter.

In 1147, crusader knights led by King Afonso I of Portugal besieged and reconquered Lisbon, although the local bishop was killed by the crusaders. The remaining Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity or were expelled, and their mosques were destroyed or became churches.

Close to Sé Cathedral, a church marks the birthplace of Saint Anthony of Lisbon (1195-1231), also known as Saint Anthony of Padua. He was a wealthy Portuguese bohemian who became a Franciscan friar and after a life working the poor he was canonised as a saint and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church.

The Padrão dos Descobrimentos or Monument to the Discoveries recalls the explorers who set out for the new world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lisbon became the capital of Portugal in 1255, and grew in the later Middle Ages as trade expanded with northern Europe and the Mediterranean. The Portuguese expeditions in the Age of Discovery began in the 15th century, and the explorers who left from Lisbon included Vasco da Gama, who sailed for India in 1497, and Pedro Álvares Cabral, who left for Brazil in 1499.

The tomb of Vasco da Gama in the church in Belém (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The 16th century was Lisbon’s golden era, and the city was at the centre of Europe’s trade with Africa, India, the Far East and Brazil. The exuberant Manueline style of architecture developed at this time, and surviving examples include the Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery, west of the city and both Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Torre de Belém was built as a fortified lighthouse in 1515-1520 to guard the entrance to the port. It once stood on a tiny island in the Tagus.

The monks of Belém were chosen to pray for the king’s soul and provide spiritual care to navigators and sailors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

12, The Torre de Belém was built on a tiny island in the Tagus to guard the entrance to Lisbon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Belém takes its name from Bethlehem, and the monastery was built by Henry the Navigator in 1459. Manuel I chose the Hieronymite monks for the monastery, so they would pray for the king’s soul and provide spiritual care to navigators and sailors who left from the nearby beach in search of the new world. The church has soaring pillars supporting a fan-vaulted ceiling, and at the west end is the tomb Vasco da Gama.

The church in Belém has soaring pillars supporting a fan-vaulted ceiling (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Rebuilding after disaster

The Marquis of Pombal rebuilt Lisbon as an elegant modern city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After a crisis over the succession to the crown, Portugal lost its independence to Spain in 1580, and the Spanish Habsburgs ruled Portugal and Spain as a dual monarchy until independence was restored in 1640.

Portuguese prosperity was enriched with the discovery of gold in Brazil in the early 18th century, and King John V used some of this new-found wealth to build several baroque churches and theatres in Lisbon. But tragedy struck on 1 November 1755 when a devastating earthquake and the tsunami that followed destroyed 85 per cent of the city and killed 30,000 to 40,000 people out of a population of about 250,000.

Lisbon was then one of the largest cities in Europe, and the catastrophe shocked Europe. The Alfama, with its labyrinth of narrow streets and small squares, suffered little damage. Many of old houses have been remodelled and today this quarter has bars, restaurants and small shops, with traditional Fado music heard everywhere.

The heart of Lisbon is the Baixa, rebuilt by Pombal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, Lisbon was rebuilt as a modern city by the Prime Minister, the Marquis of Pombal, with two great squares, the Praça do Rossio at the heart of the commercial district, and the Praça do Comércio on the shores of the River Tagus. The heart of Lisbon is the Baixa or city centre, rebuilt by Pombal as an elegant district.

With the Napoleonic invasion, the royal house fled to Brazil. The assassination of King Carlos I in Lisbon in 1908 led to the final fall of the monarchy and the proclamation of a republic in 1910. The First Republic came to end in 1926 when another revolution established the Estado Novo, or the Second Republic.

The Gloria Funicular … a 19th century way to visit the heights of a modern city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Under the Salazar regime, Portugal remained neutral during World War II, although 100,000 refugees fled Nazi Germany through Lisbon. During World War II, the Praça do Império was laid out in the heart of Belém, with rich gardens and a large fountain, and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos or Monument to the Discoveries was built for the Portuguese World Fair in 1940. The monument to Christ the King (Cristo-Rei) in Almada on the southern bank of the Tagus, was erected as a thanksgiving for Portugal being spared the horrors of World War II. With Christ’s open arms overlooking the city, the statue resembles the Corcovado monument in Rio de Janeiro.

Portugal lost its grip on its remaining colonies in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Carnation Revolution in 1974 brought an end to the far-right regime and ushered in the Third Republic. Today Lisbon is a modern European capital, conscious of its cultural and colonial past. In 1998, Expo ’98 celebrated the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s sea voyage to India. Yet this is also the city where the Lisbon Treaty, reshaping the European Union, was signed in the Jerónimos Monastery in 2007.

The Lisbon Treaty, reshaping the European Union, was signed in the Jerónimos Monastery in 2007 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

To the edge of the earth

On the edges of Lisbon, we visited Estrela, with its 18th century Estrela Basilica and its large dome and twin bell towers on a hill in western part of Lisbon. Nearby was the São Bento Palace, where the Portuguese parliament sits, and the official residences of the Prime Minister.

The city is linked to the south bank of the Tagus by two important bridges: the 25 de Abril Bridge, Europe’s longest suspension bridge, and the Vasco da Gama Bridge, the longest bridge in Europe. But instead we took the ferry from Belém to Porto Brandão one evening, after an afternoon of sailing on the Tagus, and had dinner that evening in an old fishing village.

On another afternoon, we took the train from Rossio to Sintra, with its 19th century palaces, castles and royal retreats, and its literary heritage. From there we travelled on to the Atlantic Ocean and Cabo da Roca, where we stood on the most westerly point of continental Europe. The proof of the journey came in a certificate quoting the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões (1524-1580), who wrote at the height of the age of discovery: “Aqui, onde a terra se acaba e o mar começa ... Here, where the land ends and the sea begins ...”

I had been to the edge of the earth, where the land ends, and returned through Cascais and Estoril along the coast to Lisbon.

Cabo da Roca and the Atlantic Ocean at the western edge of continental Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.This essay and these photographs were first published in March 2015 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)


Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(12): ‘The Song of the Tree of Life’

Erasmus Darwin House, Beacon Street, with the spires of Lichfield Cathedral in the background … Ralph Vaughan Williams was a direct descendant of Erasmus Darwin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting on and invite you to join me in listening to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). This morning [1 March 2015], as I find myself at the beginning of a new week and a new month, I am listening to ‘The Song of the Tree of Life.’

Today is the Second Sunday in Lent, and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22: 23-31; Romans 4: 13-25; Mark 8: 31-38. I was drawn to this morning’s song, ‘The Song of the Tree of Life,’ through some of Christ’s words in the Gospel reading:

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

I first heard ‘The Song of the Tree of Life’ on Begone Dull Care (Lammas Records, LAMM 107D), a recording by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral, directed by Andrew Lumsden, now Organist and Director of Music of Winchester Cathedral Choir, and accompanied on the organ by Robert Sharpe, now Director of Music at York Minister.

Of course, Vaughan Williams was a direct descendant, through his mother, of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), who lived in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield.

This recording by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral was made in June 1998 in Hawkesyard Priory, Armitage, near Rugeley and six miles north-west of Lichfield. This is one of the architectural gems of Staffordshire and was built in the late 19th century by Josiah Spode IV (1823-1893), who was also a keen organist. Spode House later became a Dominican Priory, and the church was built between 1896 and 1914 for the Dominicans by the architect Edward Goldie.

I knew the place well in my late teens and early 20s, when the Folk Masses in the priory chapel were popular with many of my friends from Rugeley, Brereton and Lichfield. It was the early 1970s, and at that age I enjoyed the music of English folk rock bands such as Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Lindisfarne and Jethro Thull. Their music provided an interesting bridge to both the music of Vaughan Williams, which I was introduced to in rural Shropshire, and the Folk Masses at Spode House, which had become a popular venue in rural Staffordshire for retreats, short courses on church music, theatrical groups, youth organisations, prayer and reflection.

The friars included Father Donald Proudman, who had died before I ever got to know the place; the saintly and philosophical Father Columba Ryan (1916-2009), who was immersed in the history of the house, who was a CND supporter until his dying days, and whose father was the last British dragoman in Constantinople; and Father Conrad Pepler (1908-1993), the founding warden, who we did not know had provided a Roman Catholic funeral in Cambridge for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The monastery and the conference centre closed when the last Dominicans moved out in 1988. The place became a nursing home and the hall fell into disrepair and was boarded up until 1999, when the hall was bought by the Whorton family who were determined to return the building and the estate to its former glory. The transformation of the Hall and outer buildings was completed in 2007, and the estate includes Hawkesyard Hall, Saint Thomas’s Priory Golf Club, Armitage Park conference and events centre, and the home of the Wolseley National Car Rally. The Priory Church is now used on Sundays by an Old Catholic group.

At lengthy lunch in Lichfield a few years ago, some of us recalled so many of our friends who loved going to Hawkesyard for the folk masses and the extended Sunday afternoons that inevitably followed. There were six underground tunnels at Hawkesyard, built to allow the estate workers to move quickly around the area, and we were convinced that two tunnels lead to Lichfield and Armitage. But was I really the one who was so fearless to lead a group of us through those unexplored tunnels and vaults? And are the tunnels still there?

This morning’s song by Vaughan Williams, ‘The Song of the Tree of Life,’ is a revised version of one of the songs from his setting of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as an opera.

Yesterday, as I was reflecting on ‘He who would valiant be,’ I mentioned how, from his childhood, Vaughan Williams had been attracted to the sturdy and simple prose of John Bunyan, with its sincerity and spiritual intensity. Vaughan Williams described his Pilgrim’s Progress as a ‘Morality’ rather than an opera, although he intended the work to be performed on stage rather than in a church or cathedral.

The opera, which includes 41 individual singing roles, was first performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 26 April 1951, conducted by Leonard Hancock and directed by Nevill Coghill.

He prepared the libretto, with interpolations from the Bible and also text from his second wife, Ursula Wood. His changes to the story included altering the name of the central character from Christian to Pilgrim.

Vaughan Williams adapted the words of ‘The Song of the Tree of Life’ from Revelation 2, and they say:

Unto him that overcometh shall be given the Tree of Life
which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.
On either side of the river groweth the Tree of Life,
the Leaves of the Tree are for thy healing.
In the midst of that fair City flows the river of Water of Life, clear as crystal.
Who so will, let him take of the Water of Life freely.
Who so drinketh of this water shall never thirst.
Take thou the Leaves of the Tree of Life.
So shalt thou enter in through the Gates of the City.

In these words, the author of Revelation, Bunyan, and Vaughan Williams link the death on the Cross with the Tree of the Life, the Crucifixion outside Jerusalem with the hope for the New Jerusalem.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, we find a return to the idea of a spiritual journey that also attracted Vaughan Williams to Walt Whitman in A Sea Symphony. His music to Bunyan has a moving restraint, an inner spirituality, a strength and a conviction that show the composer gripped by the text and responding in an inspired and ecstatic fashion.

Vaughan Williams is generally said to have been an atheist or an agnostic. But if this song shows where Vaughan Williams placed his hope how he trod the pilgrimage of life, then he shared in the hope for Easter that we should all be sharing in this season of Lent.

Candles lit in the choir stalls and chapter stalls in Lichfield Cathedral, waiting for Choral Evensong one evening last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Meanwhile, although Saint Chad’s Day falls on 2 March, today [1 March 2015] is being marked in Lichfield Cathedral as the Patronal Festival of Saint Chad, with the Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, presiding at the Patronal Eucharist at 10.30, when the guest preacher is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Revd Bernard Longley.

Collect (the Second Sunday in Lent):

Almighty God,
you show to those who are in error the light of your truth
that they may return to the way of righteousness:
Grant to all those who are admitted
into the fellowship of Christ’s religion,
that they may reject those things
that are contrary to their profession,
and follow all such things
as are agreeable to the same;
through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Post Communion Prayer:

Creator of heaven and earth,
we thank you for these holy mysteries
given us by our Lord Jesus Christ,
by which we receive your grace
and are assured of your love,
which is through him now and for ever.

Tomorrow: On Wenlock Edge, 1, ‘On Wenlock Edge