If you don’t want to find out why the climb to Bom de Jesus is painstaking for pilgrims, you can opt for the five-minute funicular ride.
Question: Where in the world was a gorgeous Baroque staircase designed to bring you pain literally at every turn?
Answer: Bom de Jesus, Braga, Portugal
Atop a 1,200-foot hill overlooking Braga, Portugal, catholic shrines have welcomed the faithful for 600 years. But in 1722, the archbishop decided to kick things up a notch, ordering the construction of an elaborate granite-and-plaster double staircase composed of 577 stairs zigzagging through 9 switchbacks. It took roughly 90 years to complete and the result is stunning, but beauty was beside the point.
By design, ascending this staircase is a much slower way to get to the top than simply walking up the hill had been. The bishop wanted pilgrims to get a taste of the suffering of Jesus in the New Testament crucifixion story. Traversing all those steps while crisscrossing back and forth was a way to show devotion. The most devout took it further and knelt their way upward, offering their physical suffering as proof of faith.
But even that wasn’t enough. Tucked into the landings are the Stations of the Cross (sculptural recreations of scenes from the day of crucifixion). They are hidden from view by the white walls of the staircase in order to increase their impact when one turns the corner and is suddenly confronted, for instance, by the near-life-sized body of Christ twisting in agony as he is nailed to a cross. The scenes are intended to cause the viewer emotional torment to go with the physical pain in their tired limbs. By the time pilgrims reach the chapel, they are supposed to have a fuller picture of the crucifixion narrative.
Then again, not everyone feels the need to suffer. A 19th-century water-powered funicular, Europe’s oldest still operating, can bring you a little closer to the heavens (and the heavenly views) in less than five minutes.
9 More Must See Features at Bom de Jesus
- The Fountain of Sight finds a young girl, bow in her hair, lollipop in hand whose eyes are pipe ducts, from which “tears” flow copiously.
- The Fountain of Touch reveals a pensive young man—perhaps a shepherd—shirtless and with arms bulging, pouring water out from a jug steadied between two hands.
- In the Fountain of Sound, a young person, eyes closed as if to concentrate, beckons with an oversized hand for visitors to come closer, while water pours from both ears.
- On the Fountain of Smell, a man, with what looks like a cup in one hand and bread in the other, sniffs the air, despite his nose running with water. (A second interpretation is that the bread is a sponge and the cup contains vinegar from the crucifixion story.)
- The Fountain of Taste shows an old man, eyes darting to the side, nervously whistling water as he gets ready to a lob at a peach at someone.
- A knight on horseback atop the hillside doesn’t seem troubled by the fact that his shield has a human face and its mouth is open, apparently screaming.
- In the decorative gardens, a half hidden cave, dripping with both flowers and stalagmites, emerges from the depths of green hillside that looks otherwise like a park, complete with a gazebo.
- Inside the sanctuary, the Madonna has a touch of Disney, a placid look on her face as birds appear to arrange the folds of her robe.
- The Saints Chapel contains a wedding-cake-style altar with statues of nearly 60 saints (many containing bones or other relics) arrayed on each tier in a strict spiritual caste system: the higher the tier, the holier the saint.
Choose our Bom de Jesus optional tour during your Northern Spain and Portugal Pilgrimage into the Past adventure to witness artistry and devotion firsthand.