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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Portuguese hilltop shrine offers a staircase to heaven

Voices Sept. 28, 2017

J.P. Sonnen stands atop the staircase of Portugal's Bom Jesus do Monte shrine with Father Pablo Santa Maria while on pilgrimage for the 100th anniversary of Fatima. (J.P. Sonnen / OC-Travel)

After a delicious Portuguese lunch with friends in the outdoor square of Braga, following a visit to the city’s enchanting cathedral, what could be greater than to look up and behold a sight of mystical reverie?     

The view on the horizon is the distant Bom Jesus shrine, perched on the green, forested side of Mt. Espinho, in northern Portugal. Leading up to this truly great pilgrimage destination is a monumental Baroque stairway clinging to the mountainside and climbing 116 meters.

The shrine, called Bom Jesus do Monte (Good Jesus of the Mount), was recently named a basilica by Pope Francis. 

Bom Jesus is a very important tourist attraction for the area and receives countless pilgrims in conjunction with Fatima pilgrimages. Visitors also frequently make stops at the nearby hilltop Sanctuary of Sameiro, as well as the glorious Benedictine Monastery of Tibães, located on the other side of Braga. 

The sanctuary of Bom Jesus is well equipped for visitors. The heavily forested area is full of various hotels with ample parking for cars and buses. There are trails, gardens, fountains, a gift shop and even a nearby lake. Faithful gather for retreats and religious conferences.      

The sanctuary in located in the town of Tenões, about five km from Braga. Some pilgrim groups walk there from the downtown Cathedral of Braga. Others drive to the top and simply visit the basilica, while perhaps most begin their journey at the bottom of the staircase and walk up to the shrine.       

Many hilltops in Portugal and other parts of Europe have been sites of religious devotion since antiquity. It is believed the Bom Jesus Hill is one of them. However, the first written indication of a chapel on the site dates from 1373.

At that time the original pilgrims arrived from neighbouring villages and hamlets to meet and pray before a wooden rendition of Calvary, set there by an unknown hermit. In the 16th century, a small hermitage was built on the spot which stood as late as the end of the 18th century when the present shrine and stairs were built.

The construction of the present shrine included the creation of the massive staircase and it is this combination that makes the shrine so unique. 

The stairs begin at a semicircular bottom with an elegant portico in the shape of a surbased arch. Pilgrims gather here at the entrance to ascend the massive zigzag staircase, winding up the hill amid leafy trees of the most varied species.

The staircase is flanked by small chapels in which are seen very realistic life-size statues, representing scenes of the Holy Way, the Passion of Christ, beginning with the Last Supper. These sculptures are made of terra cotta stone.      

The first section, in zigzag form, is composed of five fountains, each bearing a figure depicting the five senses, by which human persons come to know God through the mystery of creation and revelation. 

The first fountain pours forth a jet of water from its eyes (the sight fountain), the next its ears (the sound fountain), followed by the nose (the smell fountain), finally the mouth (the taste fountain), concluding with a statue holding a jar from which water is being poured (the touch fountain). 

Halfway up is a wide belvedere promenade from which can be enjoyed a majestic view of Braga, extending as far as the sea. Here begins the last part of the staircase, known as the “Staircase of the Virtues,” in ornate Louis XVI style. 

On the next zigzag section there stands the statues of Faith, Hope and Charity, the three theological virtues, each with its own fountain. They are accompanied by various other statues representing personages of the Old Testament.

Finally, at the top, an admirable view reveals itself as the temple raises its spires above the manicured lawns and shady trees. Here visitors are welcomed by a large area surrounding the front of the church, offering a majestic view over the Este valley. 

Granite statues are at the top, representing the biblical characters who have played some part in the trial and burial of Christ, each statue bearing at its foot an explanation from the Gospel.

Walking northward visitors are led to the yard of the Evangelists, where the three last outdoor chapels of the sanctuary are located with four fountains, each one devoted to the memory of an evangelist and bearing the appropriate insignia.

The present sanctuary church was built between 1784–1834 by the architect Carlos Amarante and was one of the first Neoclassic churches in Portugal, built according to the three classical orders. It is also uniquely Baroque, a fascinating mixture.    

The interior was decorated in the beginning of the 19th century and was consecrated after completion in 1834. In the sanctuary behind the altar is seen the main altarpiece – the life-size statues representing the crucifixion of Christ, continuing the biblical scenes of the chapels along the outdoor staircase and completing them. 

After visiting the church, the small museum of the Brotherhood of Bom Jesus is worth a visit on account of the noteworthy paintings inside by Domingos António de Sequeira (1768-1837), a gift from Pedro Jose da Silva, a Bracarian merchant from Lisbon, at whose expense the temple was completed. 

Another attraction is the vintage funicular that brings pilgrims and tourists alike up and down the hill. When it was constructed in 1882, people came from everywhere to see it, the first funicular to be built in the Iberian Peninsula.

The design of the sanctuary influenced other shrines in Portugal and her colonies, even copying the zigzag stairs leading up to the church. In the colonies pilgrims climbed the stairs, by tradition encouraged to do so on their knees, with the statues and chapels educating them through a theological program of visuals. 

Walking the staircase remains a rare and unique experience in the Catholic world. As visitors witness vivid scenes of the Passion of Christ, the senses of the material world are contrasted with the virtues of the spirit. 

The culmination of the ascent is to enter the shrine at the top, having accompanied Christ on his sorrowful journey to Calvary. There is the reward awaiting all those who persevere in their journey to the final goal: arrival at the temple of God.     

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.