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Misericórdia's Church at the present time

Despite being one of the oldest buildings that currently exists in Vila Real, this monument has never received a detailed analysis of its structure as it stands today for all those who decide to visit it.

The building occupies a small block, with a trapezoidal structure, between two streets and a lane. The façade is divided horizontally into three areas. The first, which is also the highest one, only presents a door, due to the elimination of both windows as a result of the mentioned intervention by the end of the 20th century. The door has an uneven jamb, united in the upper part by a padstone composed of frames. The base structure presents some elements reminiscent of the Manueline style, but also with a Renaissance influence. The padstone is based on a full arch with a lowering at the intrados. An ogee (or ducina) separates the first from the second register of the façade, which consists of a false pediment interrupted by a slightly higher rectilinear frame (pseudo polygonal gable).

Laterally, two acroterions underpin several pinnacles (based on decorated pedestals) and the tympanum has a niche formed by two pilasters and a segmental arch. The shape of the Tuscan capitals of the pilasters is continued in a hollow concavity, having a plant motif on top. In the niche there is a statue of Our Lady of Conception, behind which there is a small gap, visible only from within. This set is topped off by a steeple, whose structure consists of two pillars supporting a false triangular pediment, opening up to the bell in the central part. The steeple is surmounted by a cross of vegetation type (small interlaced branches) and flanked by two birds.

The wall facing east has a round arched door, free from decoration, and openings for lighting the church, the sacristy and the rooms on this side of the building. The existence of a steeple (resting on a plinth and topped by an elegant curled finial) and a niche with the image of Our Lady Crowned are the elements that distinguish this side of the building.

The wall on the west side, which corresponds to the whole church, also presents several openings: a door of great simplicity, giving direct access to the interior of the church, two large windows (one over the door) and two overtures with different sizes. This wall, like its counterpart, has in its northern end a corner niche with the statue of St. Barbara.

The north wall, which corresponds to the head of the church and to the wall of the sacristy and house of dispatch has a great austerity, without any opening or decorative element, demarcating the area of the church by the steep gable, in contrast with the sacristy and the house of dispatch.

These façades were whitewashed, with areas of greater polychromy (in the few decorative elements pointed out) in the images that were painted and gilded. The three outdoor sculptures, although of iconographic interest, exhibit on the part of those who made them a plastic limitation.

Given the discretion of the church on the outside, a question arises. Where to include it in the styles of the Portuguese architecture of the 16th century? Built between 1528 and 1538/48 (1548 is the date inscribed on a stone that is part of the door right jamb), with some later additions, one must situate the building in the Mannerism style. Nevertheless, this classification, as often happens in Portugal, deserves some caution, since we are dealing with a building whose author has not totally broken with the Manueline past (the bases of the main door and the finial of the bell tower), or the onset of the Renaissance in Portugal (the round arch that we have mentioned).

In the interior, the church presents a single nave, with no definition of the chancel, except for the height difference (three steps) between the nave and the platform at the main altar. The wall of the main altar has three round arches, decorated with small coffers at the intrados, the central one higher than the laterals (a scheme inspired in the Serlian motif). These arches probably contained three retables, perhaps Mannerist, but they were eliminated.

Nowadays, the main retable, with an eclectic taste, associating late-Baroque forms with neoclassical reminiscences (four columns with Corinthian capitals and a shaft decorated with a double inverted plant-decorated ring; entablature with notorious movement, topped by urns and a finial of undulating lines and vibrant decoration, from which emerges a closing of feathers that contrast with the understated elegance of the rest of the remaining decor), is framed by two lateral arches where two images were placed: on the Gospel side, the Lord of the Green Cane; and on the Epistle side, the Lord held to the column. This site was previously occupied by two retables: the first, with the Lord of the Steps, and the second with Our Lady of Sorrows.

The nave, which holds the graves in the floor, is divided by an iron railing, placed in 1889, and presents along its walls a back band with tiles (with carpet and cob patterns), placed in the end of the 17th century. On the wall of the Gospel side, with an access door to the street, and after the works of the late 20th century, in the place where there once was an altar, there is a structure topped by an arch framing the image of the Lord of the Steps, followed by a retable (polychrome and with Rococo-style decoration) of Our Lady of Conception, also known as the altar of Our Lady of Mercy. Between this area and the area of the chancel there’s the pulpit with its access ladder.

On the Epistle side (also in the place where there was a retable) we find a mannerist structure topped by a small pediment formed by wings, where it stands out the sculpted decoration of the plinth and the paintings of the soffit of the arch. This structure frames the images of Our Lady of Solitude and the dead Christ (Our Lord of the Grave). Following the door that leads to the lateral premises, we have the altar of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, identical to the one in front of it. On this wall on the Epistle side, after the retable, there is a door through which accesses the sacristy space, and at the upper part, as it happens in similar Misericórdias’ churches, we have a tribune with by columns, for the Board.

In the sacristy, of small dimensions, it is worth noting the coffered wood-carved ceiling with the central part painted with natural elements. One of the coffers includes a painting with the royal arms and an inscription. This type of ceiling was very common in the Portuguese art of the 17th and 18th centuries and was frequent in many buildings of Vila Real and its surroundings. Through the tribune, which is accessed by a ladder, there is a room, which currently works as a storage room, but that once hosted the house of dispatch where for centuries the members of the Board led the Misericórdia of Vila Real.

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