The Return of Dom Sebastião?


In May 2016 a small statue of Dom Sebastião situated on a walled-pedestal in between two doorways of the ornate neo-Manueline Rossio train station in Lisbon was destroyed by a man’s effort to take a ‘selfie’ with the statue by climbing up onto it. The statue had stood at the train station since its opening to the public in 1890 and has, since the incident, not yet been replaced leaving a noticeable empty space on the façade of the train station.

(Photo of the statue in 2015).[1]

As tourism continues to grow new measures should be considered to conserve national and cultural heritage from the sheer numbers of people visiting historical sites, in order to prevent any avoidable damage. In Belém, Lisbon when I was inside the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in September 2015 I was surprised to see, who I assumed was a Portuguese man with someone else, hurriedly walk through the monastery without much interest, arriving at the tomb of Luís Vaz de Camões, I believe and not Vasco da Gama’s, to then reach for the stone tomb and then proceed in touching it in some sort of wish granting ritual, to then walk out in their hurried pace. I am sure he was not the only one who has done this sort of thing. The problem is, if everyone touched every statue, monument or tomb they visited there would be further problems in maintaining these objects and their masonry, an additional factor to time and weather conditions alone. Take Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris as one example, in 2011 a glass wall was placed around the tomb due to the damage caused by hundreds of admiring visitors’ lipstick kisses.[2] New problems are facing many European cities due to mass tourism and the impact this is having seems to only serve the interests of businesses that disseminate their own cultural heritage for profit. It is the interactions people have when visiting sites of historical and cultural significance that must be better managed and controlled in order to respect the objects that might not be here tomorrow. Venice, Italy is currently at the frontline of a popular rejection of mass tourism due to the impact it is having on the lives of the locals and the lagoon environment.[3] Lisbon is not at this stage yet, and it may never be, however, the city has become increasingly touristic since the Portuguese Financial Crisis (2010-2014) and this is understandable, as tourism has helped Portugal economically, but it is much to the city’s detriment.

Despite many visitors to Lisbon, many may have missed the small and subtly placed statue of Dom Sebastião, which was probably one of Lisbon’s best public statues because it was within the city centre rather than in the Belém district (known for some of the nation’s most important architectural structures but away from the city centre), moreover, it was unobtrusive, modest, referential and not just a single statue but part of an neo-Manueline façade that spreads from doorways to windows that worked together as one large art piece. It was a statue many lisboetas would likely not dispute its right of place in the city, in contrast to the statue to Padre António Vieira or the monument to Marquês de Pombal (Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo) which can divide opinions in contemporary Portugal due to re-evaluations of their biographies. Vieira’s religious ‘conversions’ of Africans and Indigenous peoples in the Portuguese colonies and his association to a time of colonial violence and slavery are matters that cast a shadow over his name.[4] Pombal’s dictatorial reign and killings of his supposed enemies is also controversial, however, Dom Sebastião in his short life has a status of greater magnitude than the two aforementioned even though they certainly did more for Portugal than the young king who, ultimately, with his passing ended Portugal’s Golden Age.

This statue of Dom Sebastião once at Rossio train station can be read as simply a statue of a previous king in a time which Portugal was led by an absolute monarchy, every European nation has these kinds of statues, however, what makes this figure special is his fall and possible return known as Sebastianismo.
Sebastião was still in his mother’s womb when his father Infante João Manuel died at 16 years old, the heir to the Portuguese throne. Sebastião was crowned king of Portugal in 1557 due to King João III’s nine sons having not survived him. As a young king perhaps Sebastião was too impulsive and fervent towards conquest to the point of obsession, an ambition that led him to his death at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir in Morocco at the young age of 24. Sebastião, leaving no heirs meant the brother of the previous king, João III, fellow son of Manuel I (the king before João III) would take the throne. The problem with this new king, Dom Henrique, was that he was an elderly cardinal and, therefore, had no heirs himself due to his religious station. Dom Henrique’s death would, therefore, lead to a succession crisis resulting in the Iberian Union (1580-1640) in which the Spanish Habsburgs would rule Portugal and her empire as one with their own for 60 years. At this time, there was no idea how long this dynastic union would last for and it was during this period, more than ever, a hope of the return of Dom Sebastião would occur to restore the country from the Spanish and return Portugal to its former glory. This messianic myth had its basis on the lack of evidence of Sebastião’s death as no body was accurately identified, therefore, spread the belief he had escaped and was somewhere still alive and would return on a misty morning to Portugal at the time of her need, restoring Portuguese sovereignty. Even when Portugal regained its sovereignty after the Portuguese Restoration War (1640-1668) with her new king Dom João IV and later in the 19th century during the French invasion of Portugal in 1807 and the exile of then a later Portuguese monarchy to Portugal’s colony in Brazil, the myth of Sebastianismo was galvanised again, likely as a patriotic device necessary for a country no longer with governing autonomy to stay optimistic, albeit with lesser resonance it once held. The legend is, essentially, of national restoration that also existed in other kingdoms across Europe in various epochs that now continue as folklore stories that mainly function wholly as romantic ideals. Some examples of these kind of legends are King Arthur and King Harold, among many others. King Harold’s legend, for example, is similar to the later myth of Sebastianismo as King Harold’s legend was that he was not felled at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and would return to rid England from the Norman yoke.[5] The statue at Rossio train station, therefore, symbolises not only a young Portuguese monarch but an enduring legend and, it is for this reason, the loss of the statue is sad for the city of Lisbon’s cultural heritage. The statue has been in place at the train station throughout momentous events in the capital, the fall of the Portuguese monarchy, the birth of the First Republic and the assassination of the fourth President of the Republic within the train station itself.[6] Furthermore, the statue has rested at the train station during the rise of the Second Republic – the National Dictatorship and then the Estado Novo regime, to its fall in 1974 with the Carnation Revolution and to present modern Portugal, up until 2016 when it was destroyed on accident. The significance of the statue then, regardless of its historical meaning in which the figure Dom Sebastião represents in the collective memory of the Portuguese, that serves to remind us of Portuguese history and a mythological past belief is the issue of just how long the statue has been around, that it has been part of Lisbon’s daily lifecycle for passers-by and commuters at the train station for 126 years, and this is certainly a great loss to Lisbon’s urban fabric. As I suggest the reasons to lament the statues destruction, that it does genuinely garner it is, in many ways, ironic as Sebastião although born in Lisbon (the country’s capital at the time since 1255, before it Coimbra, which would later move to Rio de Janeiro and then the Azores before Lisbon becoming the capital again) disliked the city and would not visit it often according to C. R. Boxer.[7]

(Photo of the empty walled-pedestal in 2018).[8]

There is hope for a statue to return to Rossio train station that depicts Dom Sebastião with two statues of the young king in existence that could be suitable. The first, and best proposition, is the existence of an identical replica, possibly from the same mould as the original destroyed statue, which is in the possession of Lisbon’s Dr. Gama Pinto, Institute of Ophthalmology who have the statue in storage.[9] The second that could suffice is Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporãnea do Chiado, that has in its collection a different statue of the king from 1877 by José Simões de Almeida Júnior (Tio). The latter statue, however, is of different material and colour and would not be preferred than the first of which is identical. The latter statue would not be able to repair the historical timeline of 126 years and to continue it but would, instead, introduce an alternative that would signify a visual transition, marking at the site that there was once a statue there completely different. The Chiado museum statue, as well, is likely too precious to be on public display outside exposed to the elements, so this suggestion would further damage Portuguese sculpture rather than be a solution to the original problem. Hopefully the original statue’s replica will be used, a possession almost as if it was always meant to be a backup because the original statue was never secured down but rested on its walled-pedestal-shelf by its own weight alone for all those years! Nonetheless, the replica would be prefect that due to its identical features would be able to continue adding to the 126 years of the original like its legitimate heir, excusing a few years of absence in which Sebastião does returned but here as if the event in 2016 never happened.

The return of Dom Sebastião may then occur but not in the messianic way many once hoped for during the Iberian Union or, to a lesser extent, during the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal, nonetheless, his return to the façade of Rossio train station is something that I am waiting for that hopefully will occur unlike the real king himself.

«É O que eu me sonhei que eterno dura,
É Esse que regressarei.»[10]



Notes :

[1] Photo of the statue of Dom Sebastião and a section of the neo-Manueline façade at the Rossio train station, taken by me in January 2015, Lisbon.

[2] Tagliabue (2011).

[3] Giuffrida (2019).

[4] Ernesto (2017).

[5] Hartland (1891).

[6] Sidónio Pais (the 4th President of the Portuguese Republic) was assassinated inside the Rossio train station by a gunman in 1918.

[7] Boxer (1969), p. 368.

[8] Photo of the empty walled-pedestal where the statue of Dom Sebastião used to stand at Rossio train station, taken by me in October 2018, Lisbon.

[9] Borges (2016).

[10] Pessoa (2007). An excerpt of the poem, Primeiro / D. Sebastião in the only book published during Fernando Pessoa’s lifetime, Mensagem, originally published in Lisbon by Parceria António Maria Pereira in 1934. The quote reads in English, ‘The One I have dreamed myself is the ever-enduring, As this I shall come again.’



Bibliography :

Borges, Liliana, ‘Afinal, Havia Outro. O Regresso do Rei D. Sebastião Pode Estar Perto’, Publico, 10 May 2016, <> [accessed 6 August 2019].

Boxer, C. R., The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415-1825 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), pp. 367-78.

Ernesto, Ana Yekenha, ‘Extrema-Direita Impede Manifestação Contra Estátua do Padre António Vieira em Lisboa’, Diário de Notícias, 6 October 2017, <> [accessed 7 August 2019].

Giuffrida, Angela, ‘The Death of Venice? City’s Battles with Tourism and Flooding Reach Crisis Level’, Guardian, 6 January 2019, <> [accessed 6 August 2019].

Hartland, Edwin Sidney, The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry into Fairy Mythology (London: Walter Scott, 1891), p. 205.

Khalip, Andrei, ‘Selfie Gone Wrong Fells 126-Year-Old Statue of Portuguese King’, Reuters, 4 May 2016, <> [accessed 6 August 2019].

Pessoa, Fernando, Message / Mensagem, trans. Jonathan Griffin, 2nd edn (Exeter and London: Shearsman Books and The Menard Press, 2007), pp. 80-1.

Tagliabue, John, ‘Walling Off Oscar Wilde’s Tomb From Admirers’ Kisses’, New York Times, 15 December 2011, <> [accessed 7 August 2019].


Published: August 8, 2019. Last edited: October 8, 2019.

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