The boat and the ravens

What is behind Lisbon's Coat of arms? The Boat and the ravens?

Lisbon’s coat of arms

If you’re among those who like paying attention to details, when visiting Lisbon, you will certainly be confronted many times with the silhouette of a boat having two ravens standing on its edges- one standing on its bow and the other on its stern.

In a city with such strong connection with the ocean, it’s easy to understand the boat… But what about the ravens? In order to understand it, you should know right away that this is the city’s coat of arms. It reminds us of the legend of the martyr St. Vincent, who was born in Saragossa, killed in Valencia and that oddly ended up in Lisbon. Even though he’s not as known as St. Anthony, he still holds a prominent place among the city’s characters, because he’s the patron saint of our diocese. 

St. Vincent was born in the city of Saragossa in Spain, in the beginning of the 4th century AD. Because he didn’t deny his Christian faith, he suffered martyrdom. The legend says that, although his dead body was thrown away to be devoured by vultures, it was managed to be saved by a flock of ravens who Vincent had fed during his lifetime. Thus, his relics were able to be kept in a small chapel, where they were preserved and venerated. According to the story, the ravens stood on the chapel, watching over St. Vincent’s body for the years to come. 

A few centuries later, when the Moors arrived in the Iberian Peninsula, a group of Christians, devoted to the saint, decided to hide the relics and save them from being destroyed. As they were being brought to one of the (back then) most inhospitable and hidden places in the Peninsula, the ravens miraculously kept following the saint’s relics. If you look at a map of Portugal, you’ll easily identify the place that I’m referring to: it’s St. Vincent’s cape, the Southwestern corner of continental Portugal and, I dare to say, of Europe! 

Coat of arms Lisbon
Detail of the Boat and the the ravens on Street lamp

A few more centuries later, more exactly in the year 1147, Lisbon was conquered to the Moors, and our first king, Afonso Henriques, must have heard about the existence of the relics in such a far-away place. Because the lands south from Lisbon were enemy territory, the only way to reach the cape of St. Vincent was by boat. A few of his humble servants were thus sent and… guess what: they didn’t have any trouble finding the relics. They just needed to check where the ravens were, and the relics would be hidden underneath! The legend says that, on their way back to Lisbon, a storm had the boat lost in the middle of the ocean. But the ravens brought it back on the right route. After such a troubled journey, when the boat finally arrived at the mouth of the Tagus river, watching the city of Lisbon from a distance, it was all surrounded by ravens. St. Vincent’s ravens. 

The relics were brought into the cathedral and St. Vincent was proclaimed the patron saint of the diocese. The ravens alighted on Lisbon’s cathedral, where they stood for many centuries… until they decided to fly away, to other places. And this is why we don’t usually see real ravens in Lisbon’s cathedral anymore. But we can see them represented everywhere! You’ll see them on city flags, on the street lamps and even on the city’s ornate sidewalks.

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