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St Vincent, the forgotten Saint

St Vincent, the forgotten SaintCape St. Vincent, one of the major geographical features of the Algarve with its millennia of history; The Monastery of São Vicente de Fôra in Lisbon; St Vincent’s Anglican Church of the Algarve; we are indeed surrounded by the name of St. Vincent. But who was he?

There is little to give you the answer anywhere near the Cape itself apart from a small statue of him in the little Church of Nossa Senhora de Graça inside the fortaleza in Sagres and some scant information on him in the museum in the Cape lighthouse complex, and even nearly all Guide Books give him but a passing reference. This is particularly odd and indeed sad since he is, in fact, the Patron Saint of Lisbon (and perhaps almost as importantly to some, the Patron saint of Wine Producers!). 

Small statue of him in the little Church of Nossa Senhora de GraçaAsk many Portuguese themselves, indeed, who the Patron Saint of their capital is and many of them will tell you St. Antony. His Feast Day, June 13th, merits a public holiday in Lisbon whereas, outside the Concelho of Vila do Bispo and a muted celebration in Lisbon Cathedral anyway, poor St.Vincent’s Feast day, January 22nd, is practically forgotten!

Why is this? Well perhaps one reason (but surely not!) is that St. Antony of Padua, although canonised in Italy, was Portuguese, born in Lisbon, but St.Vincent of Zaragoza was a Spaniard, born in Spain!

St Vincent Monastery, LisbonVincent was, indeed, born in Huesca, Spain, in the latter part of the third century and early in his life joined the Christian church in nearby Zaragoza. Early in his career he caught the eye of the Bishop, Valerius, and was appointed his Deacon. Although Valerius was a devout Christian he was a much older man and apparently suffered from some sort of speech impediment. Vincent effectively became Valerius’ mouthpiece and seems to have become even more outspoken than his mentor in his Christian beliefs.

So much so that when they moved to Valencia they soon came to the notice of the authorities in Rome and Emperor Diocletian ordered them to be arrested. They were, of course, found guilty. Valerius, in view of his age and infirmity, was released but exiled.

Vincent was horrifically tortured in an attempt to make him renounce his faith; he resolutely refused and in AD 303 was finally put to death. This much seems reasonably well documented and Prudentius, a Roman Christian poet who lived about a century later, described Vincent’s martyrdom and many miracles attributed to him in an epic poem. St.Vincent’s eventual canonization was pre-congregational so the actual date is unknown.

History then becomes more legend but at some point after his death his disciples sought to remove St. Vincent’s body as far away from the influence of Rome as possible. They placed him on a ship and set sail westwards out of the Mediterranean. Some say they were shipwrecked but in any event they seem to have arrived in Sagres. Sailing round the Cape when the northerly or westerly winds are blowing was then well nigh impossible, and difficult enough today; so waiting in the protected waters of Sagres bay for the winds to change was an obvious choice.

The Cape was then an awe-inspiring place; inhabited in Neolithic times, as can be seen from remains visible today; known to the Romans themselves as the Promontorium Sacrum, and considered as the end of the known medieval world. Maybe this powerful place seemed a worthy site for his remains.

St Vincent ChapelHis body was brought ashore and buried, possibly to begin with just temporarily, somewhere near the Cape. This was, again possibly, at the Cape itself but maybe at some place more convenient between Sagres and Vila do Bispo. Whether it was always intended to leave his remains there, or whether the intention was to remove them to northern Europe is not known, but in any event they remained near the Cape for many centuries, guarded as legend goes, by a flock of ravens.

All through the Roman, Visigoth and Moorish occupation of Iberia a trickle of Pilgrims, including Moçarabes, found their way across the Peninsula to pay homage to his memory and there was, and partly still is, an ancient pilgrims’ way stretching across southern Spain and the Algarve. This never rivalled St.James’ Camiño de Santiago in the north but existed nevertheless.

There he remained until around 1175 when, with Moorish occupation of the peninsular on the ebb, King Afonso Henriques recovered Lisbon for the Christians and as a symbol of the liberation decided to transfer St. Vincent’s remains to Lisbon. Still protected by the loyal ravens they were once again placed on a ship and then re- interred in the Sé.

The King also had a Monastery built and dedicated to him, São Vicente de Fora. The original Monastery was destroyed but comprehensively rebuilt under the direction of Philip II of Spain in the early 17th.century when Portugal was briefly under Spanish rule but despite its name there is today surprisingly little reference to him there. He receives much more attention in the nearby Sé de Lisboa where today, in the Coat of ArmsTreasury, is to be seen a casket supposedly containing his remains.

In even further tribute to him King Afonso had him declared the Patron Saint of Lisbon and the Coat-of-Arms of the city, still today, portrays a sailing vessel with the loyal ravens on the bow and the stern. Since the voyages of his body guided by ravens were so important to the legend many pictures and statues of St.Vincent portray him holding a model of a ship, and often ravens in the background.

A small Franciscan Monastery was built at the cape in the 16th century where his remains supposedly had been but this was destroyed in 1846 and the first of the famous lighthouses was constructed. He is also famously remembered in one of the great examples of early Portuguese painting, the St. Vincent Panels.

These six panels, depicting aspects of the life of St. Vincent, were painted by Nuno Gonçalves in the mid 15th century. Interestingly they disappeared some time around the great earthquake and only came to light in the Monastery in the 1880’s and are now housed in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. More recent legend has it that the descendants of the flock of ravens that guarded him continued to occupy roof corners of the Sé until as recently as the mid 20th.century.

These six panels, depicting aspects of the life of St. Vincent, were painted by Nuno Gonçalves in the mid 15th century.

From then St. Vincent’s fame seems to have declined. St. Antony was born in Lisbon in 1195, only shortly after St. Vincent´s remains were brought to Lisbon, he died in Italy in 1231 and was canonized a year later. Probably because of his ancestry and place of birth, St.Antony became a more important icon for Lisboetas.

Not entirely forgotten, St. Vincent´s name is remembered around the world; he is important in the eyes of the Eastern Orthodox Church and, for example, he was remembered by Columbus who named the Caribbean island after him when he discovered it on January 22nd. 1495. Why he should have been appointed the Patron Saint of Winemakers seems rather unclear and little recognized, although his picture or effigy does appear in some adegas.

Sadly, though, he remains one of the lesser known Saints, but, in Portugal especially, he surely deserves better.




This article first appeared in Update, the afpop members' magazine, reproduced with thanks


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