The girls and I had lots of time to wander around Lisbon on Friday. My priest had a meeting and we decided to explore. His church is right across the street from a beautiful garden. It is a large and diverse park. Playground for kids, ponds, turtles, cafes…just lovely. We always seem to get in the park and just stay there. I decided to motivate my squad to go to the Estrela Basilica on the other side of the park.
We see this enormous and stunning church constantly, but we never go in. We know that it was built by Queen Maria I as a fulfilled promise after giving birth to a son in 1779. Sadly, the church was finished 11 years later, after the Queen’s son had already died of smallpox in 1788. My girls found the entire history really depressing. Yet, they were deeply impressed that the Queen was so excited to have a child. Pippa wanted to know why I didn’t go to such lengths to celebrate my pregnancy with her. Sorry kid, I guess things have changed in a couple of hundred years…plus, sadly, I am not a queen.
In the back of the church, behind the crypt of Queen Maria was a hidden room. We saw a few people headed in that direction so we decided to follow them. I will say having a priest for a dad, makes my children very comfortable in churches and exploring them. In the newly discovered room was a huge glass enclosure with the largest and most detailed nativity scene I have ever seen. Sure, it has the manger setting…Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus and the animals. The three kings are there too, but then it goes a little wild.
It depicts scenes from everyday life and Bible stories. There is slaughtering of pigs, people doing laundry, men gambling…you get the idea. Everything is made from either terra cotta or porcelain, with cork pieces lining the ground as earth. One scene severely disturbed my children. It was the slaughter of the innocents.
Herod, the Roman appointed king of the Jews, order of the execution of all male children near Bethlehem so that the he would kill the newborn King of the Jews, as told to him by the Wiseman. This gruesome story was depicted in all of its horror in the nativity scene.
Look closely and you can see children being cut across their throats as their mothers scream. Babies are dangling by their hair as men try to kill them. This was a crazy brutal and lifelike display. My kids know this story because they have studied it in Sunday school, but to see it in this form was powerful. A nun was watching my children transfixed by this scene. She came over and tried to encourage them in broken English to look at other parts of the sculpture. She took a flashlight and highlighted some of her favorite parts. The kids humored her but they couldn’t get their eyes off of the dead or dying children.
Finding this nativity scene was purely an accident. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. My family isn’t likely to forget this visit anytime soon. When my girls told their dad what they had seen, my priest was crazy jealous. He had wandered into that church many times before, but he went to admire the architecture and the art…he didn’t go with an adventurer’s eye. I love that my kids discovered this magical room. They ended up showing me one of the largest and oldest nativities in permanent exhibit in the world. Pretty cool.