Capela do Senhor da Pedra: The Pagan Origins of the Chapel of the Lord of Stone
In the small seaside village of Miramar, along the spectacular coastline of Portugal, sits a tiny chapel perched on top of a rock known as Capela do Senhor da Pedra (“Chapel of the Lord of the Stone”). While the church itself dates back to 1686, the rock upon which it sits has been a place of worship for more than two millennia. Originally, the giant boulder jutting into the sea was the site of ancient pagan worship where rituals were once performed, and today, neopagans continue to make an annual pilgrimage to the sacred site.
The Capela do Senhor da Pedra, a hexagonal-shaped church, has managed to survive relatively unscathed on the Atlantic Ocean front despite the incessant battering of waves for more than three centuries. The reason for its precarious position can only be understood by tracing back its more ancient history.
The Capela do Senhor da Pedra sits in a precarious position on the Atlantic Ocean front ( Wikimedia Commons )
Prior to the building of the Capela do Senhor da Pedra, a pagan temple stood on the rock, indicating that the site was ritually significant even before the coming of Christianity. It is not known to which deity the temple was dedicated, though one may guess that he/she would have been associated with the sea. The existence of this pagan temple is attested by the inscription on the two blue and white azulejo mosaics framed on the sides of the wooden entrance of the chapel.
One of the two mosaics on the side of the chapel, which speaks of its ancient origins. ( Image source )
Portugal has some of the oldest megaliths in Europe, and there is much evidence of varied Pagan cults and places of worship. Early in the first millennium BC, several waves of Celts arrived in Portugal from Central Europe and intermarried with the local populations to form several different ethnic groups. They dominated much of northern and central Portugal; but in the south they were unable to establish their stronghold, which retained its non-Indo-European character until the Roman conquest.
Portugal is home to one of the oldest stone circles in Europe, the Stone circle of Almendres ( ancient-wisdom.co.uk)
When Christianity arrived in Portugal, efforts were made to ‘Christianize’ the land and rid it of its pagan roots. The location of the Capela do Senhor da Pedra was chosen in order to ‘reclaim’ the land from the ‘heretic’ pagans, whose traditions had endured over many centuries despite the arrival of the new religion.
The interior of the chapel contains three ornate altars, as well as a unique artifact whose origins are not certain – a rock with an indent in the shape of a horseshoe. Nobody knows how this mark came to be, and various stories have been told to explain its origins. For instance, some claim that the indent was made by the Virgin Mary’s donkey, whilst others claim that it was made by the horse of Sebastian I (16 th century Portuguese king) when it navigated poorly on a foggy day.
Despite the conversion of the site by the Christian faith, secret ceremonies relating to pagan worship still occur at the on nights when the moon is full. It is said that one can frequently find melted candles left by neopagan worshippers on the rocks and sand on the side of the chapel.
Pagan ceremonies are still carried out at the site of the Capela do Senhor da Pedra ( Wikimedia Commons )
A less secretive ceremony is the annual pilgrimage and three-day festival commemorating the site’s ancient past. This festival dates back to a very old tradition and is held in May or June on Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost in the liturgical calendar of Western Christianity) and lasts until the following Tuesday. On the final day, the festival reaches its climax with a procession from the city centre to the chapel led by fully cloaked women, who like to keep their identities unknown.
As the Capela de Senhor da Pedra is located in a small village that is not well known amongst foreigners, the chapel is rarely visited by travellers. Nevertheless, a visit to this unique place provides opportunities for the avid photographer to capture stunning images of the seaside chapel, as well as offering the chance to experience this unique slice of history.
Featured image: The Capela do Senhor da Pedra by Andre Santiago
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