A ladder, pointed upwards (pointed downwards?), suspended in the middle of church, starting half a meter off the ground, each step carrying an imprint of the grooves of the stairs that lead to the organ – stairs that have been walked up and down for three hundred years, each carrying their own imprint of use, of humans, of history.
If you walk up those stairs you will notice the walls of the church, right up to the ceiling, are adorned with at least a dozen or more 300 year old renaissance-style paintings that show no sign of conservation – the paintings are so dark they are almost black – and some hang loose like curtains, falling off the frame. If you look closely at these paintings there is little to distinguish them, in skill and style, from the most celebrated religious paintings carefully embalmed at the National Gallery.
Another church – one that nearly burned down in 1956 – the lavish Brazilian gold that once adorned a church (which may have served as a glittering reminder of colonial wealth that was attained through the bloodiest means possible) – burned away, entirely absent. If you look closely at the walls, you can see imprints of the flames, fragments of where opulent paintings once were. You can imagine what it was (a “gaudy” church no doubt, as my American companion yesterday may say) – but what it is is a building that is permitted to speak of its history, of its suffering. Like the quote emblazoned beneath a star of David outside, in a square where a frenzied massacre of “secret Jews” began in 1506, “O Earth, cover not thou my blood, and let my cry have no place.”
*(There’s more of course, if we're summarising – beginning with a left wing politician, hugely respected for his work in the European parliament in Portugal – who spoke with us for two hours not about politics but about history. As a historian he took us through the history of Lisbon, from Phoenician times until the Inquisition, the building of which stood on the same ground where he gave the lecture –ground that now bizarrely or not, given the public nature of the executions, now houses a theatre. The facts, the anecdotes about those who suffered there – the mother and aunts of the playwright Da Silva – a Frenchman who turned himself in because of theological doubts which really seemed to reveal great intelligence and a knack for critical thinking – the surreal past-ness of the past and history loomed large – as if ghosts of events that happened could almost animate themselves, could almost be conjured, were there enough accurate dates and details to meet them when they arrived. And then more happened still in the day – a cancellation of a speaker because of the painfully personal nature of discussing one’s faith with a group, a church that now houses an art exhibition, a show by an artist from Marrakech where he reflects on his own fractured and diverse relationship to religion and spirituality through a series of wordless gestures – a giddy conversation outside of the theatre afterwards with Estonians who requested to be referred to as “Bestonians” about what jokes could be made in this context, if these letters should really be gifs and a series of links to the more bizarre iterations of religious behaviour, where irreverence might crop up in this lab – if there was space for it. And whether or not it’s even possible to document not just history but the events of a single day, in words, according to one person’s perspective.)