The Procession of Our Lady of Health is a centuries-old tradition in gratitude for the end of a terrible plague that devastated Lisbon in the 16th century.
This year, 2020, we’d be celebrating 450 years of its existence, but it was curiously cancelled due to the global pandemic.
Every May, Mouraria is liven up with the Procession of Our Lady of Health that takes place on the 1st or 2nd Sunday of the month, depending on the Easter day.
The most multicultural neighbourhood of the city decorates their windows with bedspreads and the scent of incense and rosewood is added to the smell of kebab. In unison we can hear the prayers, as well as the music of the Armed Forces bands, such as the Mounted Brass Band of the National Republican Guard.
The cult of Our Lady of Health is older but its procession only dates back to 1570 and is well-known as Procession of the Artillerists, the oldest of Lisbon.
The history of Lisbon in the 16th century was particularly tragic.
It was the devastating time of the massacre and persecution of new christians, of the countless autos-de-fé (directly translated to “act of faith”; the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates) carried out by the Holy Office and of the loss of independence of the kingdom…
But it was also a time of plagues, starvation and successive earthquakes that made living in fear and startlement a constant. The natural catastrophes were seen as divine punishments for the decline in the moral values of society.
The population faced their fears with religious exacerbations and public manifestations of faith, seeking an answer and relief of their misery.
Origin of the Procession of Our Lady of Health
It was in this difficult time that during Spring and Summer of 1569 a violent plague outbreak hit the city, resulting in thousands of deaths.
In October, the young King Sebastião requested the Senate of the Council of Lisbon to build a temple in praise of Saint Sebastion, protector against the plague. However, its construction was never realized due to the premature death of the monarch.
His wish was that it’d be located in Mouraria, at the time right outside Lisbon, next to the Chapel of Saint Sebastian that was built in 1505 by Artillerists of São Jorge Castle in praise of their patron saint.
In April 1570 the first solemn celebration of the Procession of Our Lady of Health was held, having been promoted by the Artillerists and in gratitude for the big miracle that restored salubrity to the city.
In the same year the nobility of Lisbon formed the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Health, whose image was kept in an oratory in the College of the Orphan Boys and that together with the image of Saint Sebastian was yearly carried in the procession.
Two years later the Senate deliberated that the Procession of Our Lady of Health would be held annually on the third Sunday of April.
In 1661 disagreements between the administration of the College and the Brotherhood led to the intervention of the Artillerists. The brotherhoods merged and formed the Association of Our Lady of Health and of Saint Sebastian and since then the image of the Virgin moved to the Chapel of Saint Sebastian, whose name was changed to Chapel of Our Lady of Health.
The procession was only interrupted for two time periods, both in the 20th century. Firstly, in the context of the Republic between 1908 and 1940, and later during the post-revolution period between 1974 and 1981.
And now unexpectedly in 2020…
Itinerary and Participants
Initially the itinerary started in the Chapel of Saint Sebastian, going then to the Madalena Church, the Sé and the Convent of São Domingos and finally returning to the starting point.
Nowadays the itinerary of the Procession of Our Lady of Health is shorter. It starts and ends in Martim Moniz Square, in front of the Chapel of Our Lady of Health, and crosses several arteries of the centre of Mouraria.
Other saints make way to the float of Our Lady of Health. A particularly curious image is the life-sized image of Saint George that leads the procession mounted on a royal horse, together with the National Republican Guard.
Followed by the images of Saint Anne, Saint Anthony, Saint Sebastian, Saint Barbara and lastly Our Lady of Health dressed in the bridal attire of queen Maria Anna of Austria, wife of king João V. The floats are transported by the members of the Armed Forces and of the Civil Protection.
The presence of all the branches of the military and security forces is a very particular characteristic of this procession, since the Artillerists were involved in its origins.
The President of the City Council of Lisbon, councilors and even sometimes the President of the Republic or his representative participate in this event.
And also members of countless brotherhoods, people from different religious orders and naturally a crowd of believers, curious people and tourists fill Mouraria with joy and emotion.
Curious Facts about the Chapel of Our Lady of HealthThis building went through several vicissitudes: it survived the destruction of various earthquakes, such as the earthquake of 1755 and the devastating demolition of the centre of Mouraria in the 1940s and 1950s. The safeguard from the latter resulted from the resistance of the population of the neighbourhood, who didn’t allow the disappearance of such an important cultural reference.
The chapel, built in 1505, underwent several transformations through time before acquiring its current baroque style. From inside it, we must highlight the tilework from António de Oliveira Bernardes.
Plus, we highlight the Portuguese pavement surrounding it that represents the reflections of the façades of the chapel, an interesting work from the plastic artist Eduardo Nery that dates from 1991.
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