There are churches everywhere you look in Portugal. Many are tourist destinations, like the monasteries of Jeronimos, Batalha and Alocbaça, the Sanctuary of Fatima and Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga.
The tiny São Bentinho Chapel in Braga is not on most tourist itineraries. We stumbled upon it while exploring areas near the Braga Cathedral. It’s a beautiful little shrine to Saint Benedict, located on a narrow lane that gets its name from the chapel.
Inside the eighteenth century chapel is a lovely painting depicting Saint Benedict, Saint Bernard and Our Lady of Light. Capela de São Bentinho provides an intimate setting to practice your faith.
The Franciscan Order has had a presence in Porto since the early 13th century. Initially, the order was persecuted by the existing religious community and the order left for Vila Nova de Gaia. During the reign of King Ferdinand, it was ordered that their property in Porto be restored to them and around 1425 the Igreja de São Francisco was completed. Despite many changes to its interior and a 19th century that destroyed the cloister, the church remains Porto’s finest example of Gothic architecture.
The Franciscans were a mendicant order and the plain exterior of the church is in keeping with the simple austerity of the order. The only adornments are the crosses and a beautiful rosette window.
During the 1833 siege of Porto, a fire broke out, caused by gun fire, that destroyed the cloisters and damaged the church. The facade was rebuilt with the rosette window being the only remnant of the original Gothic facade.
The heavy stone exterior hides one of the most amazing interiors of any church in Portugal. Over the centuries, many prominent families became supporters of the church. The families poured their wealth into the church and during the 17th and 18th centuries much of the original austerity gave way to in incredible display of wealth.
The interior was entirely lined with elaborate gold-covered carvings. There’s really nothing that can prepare you for stepping into the space. Photography in the main interior is not allowed, but this photo from Wikimedia shows the amazing interior.
Next to the church is an annex that houses a museum, a chapel and the catacombs. It’s very interesting, especially the catacombs. Before the first public cemeteries, most people of wealth were interred in the church catacombs. The the walls and floor of the catacombs has individual tombs. You were good for 10 to 15 years, but eventually the bodies were removed from the tombs and placed in an ossuary. There’s a glass window in the floor where you can look down and see the many bones that were placed there over the centuries. It could have been worse, though. If you were poor and died, your body was usually just thrown in the river.
Among the museum items was a really nice collection of alms boxes.
Finally, there’s a beautiful chapel attached to the church. While not as extravagant as the main church, it is quite beautiful.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Porto, please add the Igreja de São Francisco to your list of must-see places. Until then, though, there’s a really interesting website that provides a virtual tour of the church. It’s well worth checking out.