The origins of the Church of Saint Martin of Soalhães date back to the 9th century, when a basilica was founded to keep the saint’s relics or where there was already a monastery of the Templars, as referenced in the year 1120.
However, there is scarcely more concrete data until we come to the 13th century, when records show that the Church took on a secular condition, thus completing the parish’s formation process.
In the listing of Churches from 1320, Soalhães is mentioned with the one of Mesquinhata (Macinhata) and Santa Cruz as paying, all together, a tax of 400 Portuguese libras.
In the 18th century, this territory made up the Prelature of Soalhães, i.e., an ecclesiastical boundary outside the diocesan jurisdiction, having a jurisdiction that could almost be compared to an Episcopal jurisdiction.
Despite the historical importance it obtained during the Middle Ages, the current structure of the Church of Soalhães shows very few traces of those times, as it was severely changed in later periods.
These changes gave rise to some controversy within the relevant institutions at the time of its classification: despite its medieval roots, the remaining elements from that period were too few to justify moving forward with their recovery.
Initially, its classification as a National Monument only covered the Church’s Romanesque elements. However, this situation was later solved in 1980, when the need to classify the Church as a whole, and not in specific parts, was considered.
875 – Reference to the basilica of Saint Martin;
1120 – Reference to the Monastery of Soalhães;
1304 – Establishment of the majorat of Soalhães;
1320 – Soalhães, together with Mesquinhata and Santa Cruz, pay a tax of 400 Portuguese libras;
1514, July 15th – Date of the “foral” [charter] of Soalhães;
1733 – Date that marks the renovations in the Church’s structure and integrated heritage (indicated in the high-choir);
1740-50 – Probable chronology of the tiling campaign carried out in the nave of the Church of Soalhães;
1977 – Classification of the Church of Soalhães as a National Monument (decree no. 129). This classification only included its Romanesque elements;
1980, March 26th – Order for the extension of the classification scope of the Church of Soalhães considered on the decree no. 129 from 1977;
1997, December 31st – Decree establishing a new wording for the official designation of the Church;
2010 – Integration of the Church of Saint Martin of Soalhães in the Route of the Romanesque.
Architecture and Furniture
Although this is a building of Romanesque construction, only a few elements from that period have survived through time. Only the main portal and the funerary chest found in the chancel have remained from those times. However, the portal itself is an element from the late Romanesque style, being possibly a proto-Gothic solution from the 14th century.
The absence of a tympanum associated with the broken archivolts and the capitals with vegetal and animal decorations, showing a clear naturalist style and a certain elegance designed by its basket, are proofs of its proto-Gothic nature.
That same late chronology is confirmed by the tomb built into the chancel’s arcosolium, on the Epistle side, since the shields are sheltered by elements with a clear Gothic flavour: an arcade, composed of three-lobed arches and capitals; micro-gables, above the arcade, topped with a clover-shaped finial; the lid of the tomb, with an hexagonal cross-section and a gabled volume, featuring a cross and a succession of floral motifs wrapped by a multiplied phytomorphic motif.
Although the identity of the person who is actually buried in it is unknown, the fact that it is located in the chancel leads us immediately to someone of high lineage, most certainly connected to the patronage of the Church.
Except for these Romanesque elements, what stands out in the remaining space are the changes applied during the Modern Period: the wide dimensions of the nave, the depth of the chancel and the large rectangular windows are a result of changes that occurred after the Council of Trent, aiming to update the interior of the Church to the liturgy and aesthetics which arose from that important Catholic council.
The tower, adjoining the main façade, with its bulb-shaped finial; the oculus with curvilinear shapes that tops the main portal, and the large windows in the main (and lateral) façade, which flood the Church’s interior with light, are also from the same period.
The Baroque style, with its horror vacui, is also visible inside the building, both in the altarpieces divided between the chancel and the nave, and in the lining of the Church’s body with tile panels and carved woodworks.
Typical of the 18th century, the panels feature clearly Baroque scenes: wreaths of flowers and fruits or putti. In terms of scene composition, the theatricality of the gesture is clearly designed by the depicted figures, such as Moses and the Bronze Serpent or the Samaritan Woman and Jesus speaking to His Disciples.
To the north, the chapel dedicated to Saint Michael opens up to the nave; its elevations are lined with tiles and the main altarpiece has National-style gilded woodworks.
Unlike the nave, the Church’s chancel is deprived of ornamentation. The Neoclassical main altarpiece houses the images of Saint Martin of Tours and Saint Lucia. At the top of the throne, an image of crucified Christ takes up the empty space that was intended to display the Blessed Sacrament.
Adjacent to the chancel, on the north side, we find the sacristy where a tiled ashlar with an acanthus frame is still visible; it shows a single figure, star-shaped corners and drawings of boats and birds, among other imagery.
Regular guided visits