Church Monuments Society

star of david crop

The Star of David monument outside the Church of St. Dominic, Lisbon, Portugal

Month: June 2023
Type: Board / Plaque / Tablet  
Era: 21st Century

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Church of St Dominic
Largo São Domingos, 1150-320 Lisboa, Portugal

More about this monument

A modern monument commemorating a past atrocity in the hope of future reconciliation

The Church of St. Dominic is situated in the Rossio area of Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, with latitude and longitude coordinates of 38.71 and -9.14 respectively. The Portuguese name for the church is Igreja de São Domingos. It is classified in Portugal as a National Monument, or Monumentos Nacionais, a classification given to those buildings and structures that have an intrinsic value to Portuguese culture. The church takes its name from St. Dominic, a 13th century Catholic priest who founded the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans, which would go on to be influential with the Inquisition, the term given to describe the group of inquisitions whose aim was to combat heresy and promote the Roman Catholic Church.

The church is of baroque architecture and was the first Dominican monastery in Lisbon. It was dedicated in 1241. Historically, the church arranged the marriages of several members of the Portuguese royal family, including King Pedro V in 1858, King Luís in 1862 as well as King Carlos in 1886, who would later be one of the first Portuguese monarchs to be assassinated in an event known as the 1908 Lisbon Regicide. The church was severely damaged by the 1531 Lisbon earthquake, an incident that was also blamed by some monks on the Jews as being the “wrath of God” or ira Dei. The church was again almost destroyed entirely by the infamous 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which had significant social consequences, with only the baroque chancel by João Frederico Ludovice being preserved. When walking inside, one notices the scorched interior: this harks back to 1959 when a fire broke out within the church, killing two firefighters and taking hours to extinguish. The church only reopened years later in 1994, with the scorched walls still in place. It is possible the walls are left as they are in their scorched state to signify the perseverance of the church through both the fire and the other natural disasters it has withstood. Photos commemorating the incident are near the entrance. The church also holds a relic associated with the three shepherd children who witnessed the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fátima, Portugal between 1916 through to 1917, an important religious event for the country. Inside the church is buried the important spiritual writer Frei Luís de Granada, who died in 1588 and was also a member of the Dominican Order as well as the spiritual confessor of King John III and Cardinal-King Henrique I. The church belongs to the Patriarchate of Lisbon, roughly the equivalent of what we know as a diocese but with some historical privileges. The church is the parish church of St. Just and St. Rufine (Santas Justa e Rufina) and has been since 1834.


Just outside the church, one comes across the Star of David monument:

star of david crop

The monument above has the following Portuguese words inscribed within the Star of David, a well-known symbol of Judaism (translated into English): “In memory of the thousands of Jews who were victimised by intolerance and religious fanaticism, killed on the massacre that started on 19 April 1506, on this square”. The monument marks the 500th anniversary of the Lisbon massacre, as seen from the date within the Star of David 1506-2006, or the Hebrew years 5266-5766. It was erected in 2008 and was designed by the Portuguese designer Graça Bachmann after suggestions by the local Jewish community on the best way to commemorate the anniversary. It is made of stone and shaped in a spherical manner. The base of the monument has the words inscribed in Hebrew from the Book of Job in the Old Testament in the Bible which reads, “O earth, cover not thou my blood, and let my cry have no place”. An observer instantly sees the diametrical opposition between a Christian institution a few yards away and a monument marking a Jewish symbol in its proximity and is left to wonder why the two are so close to each other.

The monument marks the 1506 Lisbon massacre, also sometimes known as 1506 Easter massacre. In 1506, a plague took place in Lisbon and many were confused about why the plague was occurring. During a Mass said at the Church of St. Dominic, prayers were offered for an end to the plague. One believer said they could see the face of the Lord above the crucifix on the altar. However, one new convert from Judaism to Christianity – a converso – disagreed, stating that it was only an optical illusion. Another convert from Judaism to Christianity also said the same. This angered many Christian worshippers and led to the two men being dragged just outside the church onto the Rossio and killed. The incident was further instigated by some Dominican priests who encouraged the killing of any Jews or New Christians that worshippers encountered. Several thousand lost their lives, and some were burned alive.

The incident appalled King Manuel I, who had complied with requests to subjugate Judaism within his realm in order to marry his wife. Such was his indignation at the events he requested that the Dominican priests who helped instigate the riots be executed. Others who were involved were also executed. The incident was reportedly the source of international shame at the time, with outside observers believing that King Manuel I had lost control of his realm.

 The reference to Job is relevant. Job was a man in the Old Testament, although it has long been debated whether he was an actual man or merely an allegory. Job was a blessed man who was put to the test after the Devil insisted to God that he would become unfaithful if everything he had was taken from him. His life during this trial was one of immense suffering, involving the loss of his property, livestock as well as children. That the Jewish community in Lisbon chose these particular words from the Book of Job is not immediately clear, but it could possibly be inferred that the lives of the Jewish community as a whole in Lisbon has also been one of suffering just like Job in Sacred Scripture. Furthermore, a closer look at the words speaks of a belief in Divine Providence, and a request for the God of justice to make things right again, either in this world or the next: blood spilled on the ground was frequently seen in the ancient world as demanding God’s vengeance. Even in the Catholic Church today, there is a special class of sins known as “sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance” which includes the “blood of Abel” which refers to murder. This is also the impression one gets from seeing the angle in which the monument is positioned: it is positioned at a 45° angle, as if it is looking out to the heavens. The spherical shape of the monument does not appear to be a coincidence or mistake either: it represents the suffering of the Jewish people worldwide, in circumstances similar to those experienced in Lisbon. Antisemitism is a global problem, and the monument evokes that.

The Star of David monument outside the Church of St. Dominic in Lisbon, Portugal is a painful reminder of the dangers of religious fanaticism as well as religious extremism. The observers, who were conversos, who questioned whether the events in the church were miraculous lost their lives in an environment that was already extremely hostile to Judaism and those who recently converted from Judaism. King Manuel I was so appalled at the events he made a number of legal changes and also ordered the execution of those responsible. The events also reflect poorly upon the Christian faith, which, in the words of the 13th century Dominican priest and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, seeks to combine “faith and reason”. At a time when antisemitism is becoming more popular, as seen in comments published by American hip hop artist Kanye West, and others, the monument teaches us about the dangers that words have had against the Jewish community. José IV, Patriarch of Lisbon, would later apologise in the year 2000 for the actions of the Catholic Church towards the Jewish community, including forced conversions, the propagation of convenient myths, violence against the Jewish community as well as the Inquisition process in general. It also teaches us about the consequences that words and accusations have on those from other groups, such as those of Chinese origin during the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein we have seen a spike in hate crimes against those of Asian ancestry.

The Church of St. Dominic in Lisbon, Portugal encompasses much of the history of Lisbon and Portugal broadly speaking. Although no longer remembered in the same way as Great Britain and France, Portugal too had a vast empire and like the two countries just mentioned, also had a painful history of antisemitism which is not reported about a lot in the English-speaking world. The 1506 Lisbon massacre highlights the dangers that mob mentality can have on those from marginalised communities, and should always be at the forefront of our mind when we read comments such as those from Kanye West and others about the Jewish community. That the massacre was also incited by members of clergy is disappointing and shows how deeply embedded antisemitism was in Portuguese society. The juxtaposition between the Star of David and the Christian church in the Rossio area highlights the contentious and difficult relationship that Judaism and Christianity have had historically, and one can do no better than to hope for continued inter-religious dialogue and to end this article with the words from Our Lord: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Babatunde Onabajo