Chapel of Our Lady of the Incarnation

By: J. Vasco Reys, translated by Mr. John Russell - copy from Tribuna do Algarve 31/7/96 with kind permission from Sr. Arthur Ligne

There are several vestiges of historical monuments in the Borough of Carvoeiro but everyone's attention converges on that sentinel overlooking the sea, which is called Our Lady of the Incarnation. It is here that one can find the remains of the fortress that defended the fishermen's village and its surroundings from the marauding pirates for several centuries. The chapel, with the devotion of the Saint whose name it was given, can also be found there.

Chapel of Our Lady of the Incarnation

In 1670 a fortress to defend the coast was built on top of the cliff overlooking the eastern side of the small cove at Praia do Carvoeiro, at a height of about 100 feet above sea level. Like Armação de Pera, Senhora da Rocha, Ferragoudo and Praia da Rocha, there was a need here to wall in a high, strategic point to keep watch over the sea and spot any suspicious looking vessels, namely the Moorish, English, French ones and pirates in general, and prevent them from reaching the beaches. These were the plunderers, bandits, corsairs or slave-drivers who spread terror throughout the Algarve's coastal regions over the centuries.

There is no definite indication that any other fortress had existed prior to this one, either at the present site or elsewhere. So apparently the fortress called Our Lady of Incarnation was the only one built at this location. The age of the fortress is shown in the engraved memorial stone over the entrance and which was installed there 125 years after construction started. From the text on the stone it is possible to decipher the following:

«As Governor of the Kingdom of the Algarve, his Excellency the Count of Val dos Reis, ordered the start of the construction of this fortress and during the Governorship of the Count of Pontevel Nuno da Cunha de Ataide it was finished in 1675. And during the reign of Her Majesty Queen Maria I who governed the Algarve in the Year 1790, his Excellency the Head Warden of the Kingdom   Francisco de Mello da Cunha de Mª e Menezes it was rebuilt by the Captain-in-Chief   of the Town of Lagoa António Silvestre Cª Tavares Judice, by Her Majesty on 30th December, 1796 »


As is known, Don Nuno de Mendonça, Governor and General-in-Chief of the kingdom of the Algarve, the Count of Val dos Reis, was in charge of several construction works in the area. In the case of the Carvoeiro fortress, building commenced in the name of the Regent Don Pedro, and went on for about five years. The origin of the chapel which is within the former walled area is, however, not known. It is possible that, like other examples, the small temple is older than the fortress, but so far there is no information to back up this theory. The scanty accounts that exist on the matter do not provide any definite confirmation. For example, Father Ignácio de Sousa de Oliveira mentions the Chapel in April, 1758, and said it was a «very old and memorable building» but went no further. He does, however, give us some information regarding the appearance of the small church at that time, «made with a dome, over which is an octagonal obelisk made from stone and masonry which is so high that one can see for many leagues over the ocean, and it is used as a navigational point to guide seamen to their destination ». It is likely that the Chapel was originally for religious services for the garrison that defended the beach, and late for the inhabitants in general.
As regards the fortress, the same source states that the «the inhabitants built it themselves to protect them against the Moorish attacks and continuos alarms because of the proximity to a landing point» and describes the « three levels of walls» and the financial efforts of the local inhabitants who paid for almost the entire cost, but «they rebuffed all those outrages which were so detrimental to their freedom, lives and farms». It was the state that invested the least, with  «His Majesty paying the officials only».

The chapel became completely ruined in the 1755 earthquake, the same as most of the walls and barracks. The extent of the damage was so great that, after the terrific disaster, both the soldiers and the image of Our Lady had to be transferred to shacks. In 1821 the fortress, enclosed only by a wall at the neck of the bastion, was still in ruins and with the doorway destroyed. According to the First Lieutenant of the Royal Engineer Corps, Gregório António de Sousa, there was at that time  «a disassembled 18-caliber cannon,  a small platform and a small damaged flagstone pavement and on the remainder an additional ten guns could be installed for the garrison to man». The Chapel and the fortress were repaired in 1825 and, seven years later, it is known that there still was an 18-caliber cannon to defend the coast. By 1840, however, the guns had been removed from the fortification. The Chapel, the former garrison's quarters, the bastion, casement curtain, walls and parapets were all in ruins. In 1871 it was converted for use as a customs inspection post since its former finality was no longer worthwhile.

Without any doubt, the religious fervour of the Algarvian people has frequently enabled them to overcome all kinds of adversity which such determination that it has maintained their faith in those holy symbols that time has been unable to extinguish. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Incarnation, withstood all and everyone and provided a meeting place for the people in the surrounding areas. it was completely restored in 1942, thanks to Captain Josino da Costa, and a porch complete with concrete benches was added to the frontispiece of the ancient chapel. It was repaired again in 1965, as was the customs post. The main body of the chapel, where the services are held, was expanded and a new porch added. Father António Martins de Oliveira, the prior of the Parish and Borough of Lagoa - which at that time incorporated Carvoeiro - had an annex built for pastoral activities, such as catechism, and in view of its position in relation to the vestry, transformed the chapel into the shape of a transept. During the restoration care was taken to use the former bell and maintain the original design of the bell tower although it was moved towards the front of the main body of the chapel to avoid any extensive alteration to the appearance of the building.

As regards sacred art curiosities, the terracotta image of the patron saint, Our Lady of the Incarnation can be highlighted. It measures 81 by 33 centimeters and is reputed to be a 17th century work of art. The 34 by 24 centimeter image of the crucified Christ is also noteworthy, and it was produced by an unknown 19th century artist.

The small church of Our Lady of the Incarnation is the only one in the Borough of Carvoeiro where regular services are held, and it is administered by the Algarve Church through the Lagoa Parish which superintends the services.

The site of the battery of guns at the fortress has been made into a belvedere and the partial bastion towards the west has disappeared. The upper passageway along the wall with the doorway is well maintained as a kind of terrace, but it is a pity that is does not extend beyond the keeper's house to provide a raised belvedere overlooking the sea. It is pleasing to note that the outside area of the doorway is paved with stones and kept clean, and this area is to be illuminated. The grounds in front of the keeper's house are agreeably gardened and house a children's playground. The coat of arms of the customs and excise department is still shown on the wall of the post and the watchtower is maintained to keep an eye on the shipping along the coast. Everything fits in reasonably well with the surroundings and is also built to a good standard. From the spacious watchtower one has a gratifying and impressive view over Carvoeiro, with special emphasis on the beach, the hill up to Paraiso over the rocky cliffs, and the vast spread of white houses.

In view of the historical importance of the fortress of Our Lady of the Incarnation and its signification to Carvoeiro, we cannot omit  mentioning the example of the inhabitants and the Church in preserving the religious part of the site. The government, which currently owns the fortress, unfortunately did not follow suit in having the same preoccupation with such an important local historical and heritage building as far as restoring the entire walled area is concerned. In its present condition, the old fortress is attractive in its simplicity and majesty as demonstrated in these historical ruins. However, it would be considerably better to be able to portray an exact replica of the structure which has been partially destroyed throughout the years, and which Man can always revive by means of exemplary restoration work.