Not far from our apartment in Lisbon was Campo das Mártires da Pátria and at one end there is a rather unusual statue. Well actually the statue isn’t unusual but we were confused by all the stone and marble plaques that surrounded it. At first I thought it might be a place where people remembered their loved ones given the name of the square – Campo dos Mártires da Pátria (Field of Martyrs of the Homeland), but then I took a closer look at the plaques.
Not only did they cover a huge date range, but some were only a few years old and they all seemed to be thanking the same person. I even noticed that many of the pictures appeared to be of the same man. They couldn’t all be related! Then I spotted the small box which had candles in. Perhaps these were all votives.
Votives are offerings given or performed in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude or devotion. The offerings can be prayers, candles, paintings, drawings, writings or even shapes carved in wood or clay. You will usually find them in a religious setting such as a church or temple, but they may also be found beside crosses on the roadside or statutes such as in this case. However what confused us was that the statue was not of a God nor of a Saint but of a 19th century doctor called José Tomás de Sousa Martins. So who was he?
Well according to the Portuguese Wikipedia Dr Sousa Martins was ‘a man of inexhaustible activity’, and on reading a summary of his life I think they may be right. His working life began in his early teens when he became an apprentice to his uncle who was a pharmacist in Lisbon. By the age of 21 he was a fully qualified pharmacist and just a couple of years later he had qualified as a medical doctor. Over the next 30 years he practiced as a medical doctor at Hospital de São José in Lisbon, leading the fight against TB ( tuberculosis ) which had reached epidemic levels within the city.
But he didn’t just stop there. Dr Sousa Martins was also on pharmaceutical and medical societies and committees, and was a Professor at Lisbon’s Medical-Surgical School. He used his teachings to promote his strong beliefs that doctors need to consider the psychological as well as physical care of their patients. I think many doctors today, surgeons in particular, could benefit from his words of wisdom – “When you enter a hospital at night and you hear a sick man moan, come up to his bed, see what the poor sick man needs, and if you have nothing else to give him, give him a smile.”
Unfortunately Dr Sousa Martins was to die relatively young. He fell seriously ill in 1897, and died a few months later by suicide at the age of 54, saying to a friend shortly before “A doctor threatened with death by two diseases, both fatal, must eliminate himself .” Dr Sousa Martins had tuberculosis and heart disease. His death was a huge shock to the country, with even the King D. Carlos I of Portugal commenting on it – “When he left the world, all the land that knew him wept. It was an irreparable loss, a national loss, with the greatest light of my kingdom fading away.” No wonder a statue was put up in his honour. However whilst he clearly achieved much in his lifetime, none of it I felt really explained the extraordinary number of votives or the fact they are still being offered to this day. So back I went to Wikipedia, this time the English site, to see what I had missed.
It seems that since his death a secular cult has ascribed miraculous healings to his spirit, and consequently devotees continue to this day more than hundred years after his death to visit, pray and leave offerings at his tomb in Alhandra and at this statue in Campo das Mártires da Pátria. The ‘healings’ are achieved through their psychic communications with him. I wonder what he would say of it all!