A massive earthquake some believe to up to the magnitude of 9.0, struck the city of Lisbon during the morning of church commemorations, of the holy day of the Feast of All Saints, on November 1st1755. Within ten to fifteen minutes, after the earthquake had stopped, it was clear that two-thirds of the city lay in ruins. Survivors, in general, didn’t know where to turn as they tried in vain to avoid falling rumble. Those fortunate enough to have escaped the city towards the sea, were also soon condemned and consumed by a huge tsunami that was created by the force the earthquake. Many other coastal towns and villages were also affected, in particular Algarve.
The death toll of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami and fires that followed has been estimated at 30,000 and upwards of 60,000 people. Large numbers of those first killed were believed to be in Lisbon’s cathedrals and churches during All Saints services during the morning. However, among the dead there were also many distraught survivors. And if we are to believe some of the relaying accounts of the day, amongst those lucky to survive the disaster was Portuguese painter, João Glama Ströberl.
We cannot be certain what Ströberl witnessed of the disaster. He leaves no personal account or record of what had happened other than an awe-inspiring oil painting entitled Allegory of the 1755 Earthquake. That said, the most curious aspect of the painting is the depiction of Ströberl standing on a pile of rubble on the lower-right corner. Is it meant to illustrate that he was a witness and a survivor?
From a cultural standpoint, the earthquake had a huge impact on the psyche of the population and intellectual community, as might it also have influenced Ströberl’s own understanding of the disaster. Interestingly, some theologians and philosophers saw the great tragedy as a form of punishment or divine judgment from God. One might wonder whether Ströberl felt that way too? His depiction of the aftermath of the earthquake through his painting is controversial and supernatural in nature. Of interest are a group of angels suspended in flight, above the fiery ruins of a town square, holding swords ready to strike at the unrepentant. A lonely figure is also shown kneeling at the foot of Christ’s cross and dozens of survivors look to be seeking solace behind a priest, holding his arms out praying for forgiveness.
The “Great Lisbon Earthquake,” as it came to be known, would continue to be depicted in art and literature even after Ströberl’s own death in 1792. Such was its importance that it was even apparently compared to the Holocaust as a seminal events that truly transformed European history.