By: MARGARET BROWN
HAVING JUST returned from a rural odyssey covering an area south from Monsaraz and never far from the Spanish border to visit old churches, we concluded that when they were built, the more impoverished the people were yet the more magnificent their places of worship were.
One or two were crumbling into ruin and no longer in use, while others bore their declining status with dignity, each with many altars backed by intricately carved reredos still showing traces of faded pigment and flakes of gold leaf.
One attached to the ruined castle at Juromenha had been given over to the pigeons for many years judging by the large deposits of guano and yet traces of past glory remain, with red and blue pigments still visible on an arch leading to the sanctuary and a closely patterned wall behind the stone altar under a painted dome.
Built around the time of the Portuguese Inquisition, when Sephardic Jews and other persona non grata were tortured and burned despite their conversion to the Christian faith, some of these immense and somewhat intimidating churches were a focus for social control at the hands of the Holy Fathers.
Those we visited in the Alentejo were remarkable for their numerous statues of the Virgin Mary, many of which had their own side chapels while there might be only one statue of Christ. It seems that the Mother of Christ was considered an intermediary between the supplicants and her son, that she would relay their needs to Him and obtain forgiveness for their sins.
It is with humility that as Anglicans we feel free to approach God directly through his son whether during services or in private prayer and we are grateful that our Portuguese hosts allow us this liberty in their Catholic churches.