When strolling around the streets of the capital, everywhere we go we can find representations of a boat with two birds facing each other. This is the symbol of the city of Lisbon – a small boat with two crows – the main element of the city’s heraldic representation.
When thinking of boats we immediately associate them with the river that surrounds Lisbon and the sea that connects it to the world.
The relationship between the city and the Tagus River is strong. If the river didn’t exist, the city of Lisbon probably wouldn’t either. Its strategic location as well as its subsistence were determined by this almost sea-like river from the beginning.
But is the boat the representation of this strong connection?
To a certain extent, yes. The intention of the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, of conquering the coastal territory is linked to this. But the first reason for the boat to be the symbol of the city of Lisbon is related to an event full of meaning that can quickly be told.
Vincent, the Iberian Martyr
It was the year 304 when under Roman rule, the deacon of the Church of Saragossa was martyred and his body left for birds and other animals to eat.
It is said that, because he was guarded by an angel, the animals (including crows) abstained from eating it, leaving no choice but to release his mortal remains in the sea. It then reached the coast in Valencia and was taken by the Christians. This way, martyr Vincent, author of miracles and marvels known all throughout Iberia, started being venerated.
When in 711 the muslims invaded the peninsula, the Christian guardians of the martyr transported and buried his body in a place they thought was safe, the Promontory of the Ravens (later on Cape of Saint Vincent), the westernmost point of the Algarve.
It stayed there until 1176, the year in which King Afonso Henriques ordered that his remains were removed from the still Moorish territory, and transported by sea to the city of Lisbon, which had been conquered in the year 1147.
Once again the crows were protagonists, as it is said that these birds followed the boat along during its journey to Lisbon.
Since then that Saint Vincent is the city’s patron along with the beloved Saint Anthony, another symbol of the city of Lisbon.
Afonso Henriques and the Conquest of Lisbon
Does the transference of the relics of the saint correspond to a strong devotion of Afonso Henriques himself and to his willingness to bring them to Lisbon? Not really.
The king’s intention was to legitimate the desired conquest of the entire coastal territory by possessing these adored relics and to place them in Coimbra or Braga.
However, the unfolding of events and the population of Lisbon determined a different desire.
The conquest of Lisbon led by the first king wasn’t really free of blood, looting and suffering.
In truth, the chronicles of the conquerors describing the first years of the city’s occupation are even omitted. This fact on its own reveals the lack of pride and will to report what happened in reality. However, this can be known through the written records of foreigners who witnessed the events.
For the conquest to become peaceful and accepted, it needed to be consolidated with relevant cultural aspects. The old cult of Saint Vincent was the first step to solve the problem.
However, when the Mozarabs of Lisbon (the Christian population that lived integrated in the Muslim society) found out the secret location of his mortal remains, they demanded for them to stay in Lisbon.
Afonso Henriques was left no choice but to give in and order built the Lisbon Cathedral as a worthy place for the holy relics, thus giving the conquerors the legitimacy they needed.
Six years later, in 1179, was granted a foral (a royal document whose purpose was to establish a council and regulate its administration, borders and privileges) to the city, officialising its refoundation.
The Small Boat with the Crows, Symbol of the City of Lisbon
The adoption of the small boat with the crows as the symbol of the city of Lisbon has thus already been explained, but there are other curious facts related to its story.
This image was and has been present in the patrimony and urban equipment of the council for centuries.
It was carved in stone landmarks placed in the city boundaries so that those who’d enter the city, would know they were under the jurisdiction of the council from then on. Similarly, the representation of the small boat carved in stone was also present in immovable assets, such as drinking fountains or buildings, indicating that they belong to the city.
The boat with the crows is also present in the movable patrimony of the council, as we can see in Livro Carmesim from 1502 that belongs to the Lisbon Municipal Archive. In an illuminated manuscript, the boat that transports Saint Vincent escorted by two black birds makes it clear that this precious book, as well as the information contained in it, belong to the city.
This specific representation is of such high importance that we can find the exact same one carved in the coat of arms of the pediment of the City Council’s façade, which is many centuries younger. The same image is also present in the Portuguese pavement that surrounds the statue that honours Marquês de Pombal in the Square named after him.
The Old Drinking Fountains and the Symbol of the City of Lisbon
But then, when was the official image that we find today in the coat of arms of the municipality officially instituted and spread, in different supports and styles, all over the city?
Surprisingly, the current representation that is most familiar to the people of Lisbon is similar to the oldest ones.
The images of a small boat sculpted in the Drinking Fountain of Andaluz (near Marquês de Pombal Square) and in the Drinking Fountain of Dentro (Alfama) are perhaps the oldest and the closest ones to the current representation. They’re both quite similar and probably from the same time, since they both feature the coat of arms of King Afonso IV.
In the late 1930s the revision and establishing the flags and the coats of arms of the Portuguese cities was carried out. As a result, the combining of these two images was officially adopted to represent the city of Lisbon.
It’s for this reason that when we observe these simple lined boats guarded by two crows facing each other, we feel it’s a familiar and… strangely modern design!