Sketching the 100th Anniversary Celebrations at Fátima, Portugal-Pt.1

The 4 sketchers of Fátima. from left to right: Eduardo, Kasia, Rob and Fernanda

  • Sketch Portugal with 3 other sketchers. 
  • Draw a little over a million Catholics congregating to worship in a small town, north of Lisbon.
  • And Pope Francis will be visiting too.

Those were the main nuggets that rang in my head like little bells, sparking visuals of possibilities in fragmented technicolor. What? Me? WOW!!! Are you kidding? Yes, I'm in! When I finished reading the email with details of the invitation, I told my missus, Louisa, and we hopped around the room with unbridled glee! :D

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Right. Let me explain properly.

A few months ago, I received an invitation to participate in Sketch Tour Portugal, a wonderful collaboration between Turismo de Portugal (the Tourism Board of Portugal) and Urban Sketchers.

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Sketch Tour Portugal is the brainchild of Mário Linhares (the Education Director of Urban Sketchers and founder of Urban Sketchers Portugal), a fantastic creative initiative which pairs a foreign sketcher with a local one every month, and over the course of a year, the teams record and depict various aspects of Portugal, which will be used by Turismo de Portugal (TP for short) to promote the country in a variety of ways. Kudos to a Tourism Board that's bold and innovative enough to use sketches to represent their country! (woo!!! applause!!!) Mário proposed the idea to TP, who boldly hit the Go button which led to Louisa and I landing in Lisbon in mid May. (She's my partner in life and we work together too.)

The first Sketch Tour Portugal assignment was to document the 100th Anniversary of the Apparitions in the town of Fátima, commemorating the events that led 3 shepherd children in rural Portugal to witness apparitions of angels and the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1917. The fame of Fátima then spread so far and wide over the years, that it would draw huge crowds twice a year; the 13th of May and October, which were anniversaries of the last appearances of the Virgin before the children.

To celebrate the Centenary in 2017, Pope Francis announced that he too would like to visit. The event organizers anticipated that the usual crowd of hundreds of thousands would swell to well over a million people pouring in from all corners of the globe. We heard later that most hotels in town were booked up a year in advance, with many rooms snapped up as soon as news of the Pope's possible visit became public.

As the 100th Anniversary in Fátima was to be a HUGE event; something the entire nation of Portugal was looking forward to, Sketch Portugal decided that it was too much for 2 sketchers to cover. To kick the project off with a bang and ensure that there were enough artists recording the event from 11-14 May, we were to be a team of 4, led by a Portuguese sketcher from Lisbon, Fernanda Lamelas. A gifted artist, jewelry designer and practising architect, she would be our local connection, showing us important landmarks and explaining rituals and practices. The other members of the team were Eduardo Bajzek from Brazil, a virtuoso of watercolor and architectural renderings, and Kasia Szybka from Poland, who creates amazingly detailed works in black and white. I was to represent the Far East. None of us had ever met before.

A van had been arranged to collect us from one of Lisbon's many Miradouros (viewing points) at 9am on the 11th May. It was pouring buckets as Louisa and I made our way to the meeting point in an Uber, with forecasts predicting more days of rain. We inched our way through the morning traffic as our driver regaled us with descriptions of Portuguese dishes we absolutely had to try (feijoada and Cozido a Portuguesa).

At the appointed rendezvous, we found Eduardo half-soaked and huddled under a warped umbrella. A friendly vendor had allowed him to scrunch his lanky frame under the pop-up back of her van for shelter, and spotting us, Eduardo sauntered out, clutching umbrella and suitcase, thinking we were in the vehicle that would take us all to Fátima. A fierce wind whipped his umbrella into a flapping mess as we cleared that up, examined our options, and wondered where to meet our van driver without getting drenched.

From Lisbon to Fátima : 128km (79.5m)

Hearing the conversation, our Uber driver leapt to our rescue, refusing to let us get soaked on the sidewalk. After a few Whatsapp messages and calls back and forth, he arranged an alternative pickup point with our van driver, so we bundled Eduardo in with us, and off we went. Within a half hour, we were met by the van driver, who had already picked Fernanda up. Kasia would only fly in that afternoon, and would be driven in later with the film crew who would follow us around to record our time at Fátima.

The journey itself took a little over an hour, but we hardly felt it. 5 minutes in, I knew we were going to get along like a house on fire. Polite small talk turned into cheerful banter as we zoomed past rolling hills. Shortly after a quick rest-stop coffee break, we found ourselves turning off the highway and into Fátima.

The geeky me had researched Fátima as soon as I knew of the trip. I had even 'driven' sections of town, courtesy of Google Street View, but the quiet community of 2000+ inhabitants I saw on the Internet was much busier now. Buses pulled in by the dozen, disgorging passengers groggy from travel. Dotted liberally around, large tree-lined lots were full of RVs and camper-vans of all kinds. Not surprising, given the event to come.

The view from our room at the Travel Hotel, with the spire of Fátima's Basilica beckoning to arriving pilgrims. This shot was taken on our 2nd morning when the sun peeked out for a bit.

We checked into the Travel Hotel, and as Louisa began unpacking, I drew the curtains to find a lovely view of Fátima, with its famous bell tower beckoning in the distance. Happily, it didn't look very far away. 

We had all arranged to meet in the hotel lobby after giving each other just enough time to unload and freshen up. The rain that had dogged us all morning had cleared up a little. Dark clouds scudded on the horizon, but for now, we could put umbrellas away. With a spring in our step and sketch gear in our packs, we began exploring Fátima in the crisp May air. First stop, the Sanctuary; a vast, sloping, oblong concrete space, bracketed by the old Basilica on one end, and a new, modern one on the other.

Fernanda took us first into the old Basilica, where a few of the faithful were bowed in prayer. It wasn't yet busy that afternoon, and we took a few moments to enjoy the silence before following our guide into the yawning expanse of the Sanctuary. 

The Basilica of Fátima, flanked by stepped colonnades we would soon find shelter in.

On the higher sloping end of the new Basilica, tiny silhouettes of pilgrims speckled the center, growing as they advanced. Many wore bright reflective vests, matching shirts and caps. Some gripped stout staffs capped with crosses and streaming with ribbons and flowers. Large backpacks weighed them down, their boots stained with mud and their clothes rumpled from the many kilometers they had come on foot. Lisbon is 128 km (~80 miles) away, and many of the faithful would have walked the distance in groups to fulfill a promise made.

I watched in amazement as some pilgrims came in slowly on their knees or all fours. Some crawled on their elbows. A few used knee-pads, but many did not. A smooth white path about 1.5m (~5ft) wide offered less resistance than the rough concrete, and had been built to reduce the chance of bloodied extremities as people advanced towards the Basilica. I was informed that those who were taking these more extreme measures were either penitent, expressing their depth of faith, or keeping a pledge they had made for a blessing that was bestowed upon them.

The wind blew the sky clear at times, and we 3 decided that this scene of arriving pilgrims against the backdrop of the Basilica had to be our first sketch at Fátima. Stools popped out, gear appeared and we were soon bent over our preferred kits, jackets pulled tight against the wind. At times, the sun beat down on us mercilessly, causing us to squint, and others, ominous sprinklings plopped onto paper. 

Several journalists dropped by to chat, visibly relieved at being able to quiz Fernanda and Eduardo in Portuguese. Cameras snapped and passers-by smiled down at us, delighted to hear of our mission. We were a moment of lightness contrasting with the solemn pilgrims on the marble path who drew the most attention.

My first sketch at Fátima. Text was added later.

As we drew, I noticed at the corner of my eye, a little girl shuffling slowly along on her knees. She must have been 6-8 (though I admit that my estimation of children's ages might not be very good). At times serious, and moments later smiling shyly, she clutched a little rosary in her hand. Suddenly, all the cameras saw her too, and some journalists flung themselves on the ground before her for a shot. Like a pro, she smiled then continued in silent prayer, inching forward. It's one thing to see adults immersed in acts of faith, but to see a little child like this...I was transfixed, grabbed her mentally and drew her as quickly as possible as she edged forward. 

Shortly after I finished this piece, the heavens opened in a flash. Eduardo was in the middle of applying a wash, and was suddenly forced into wet on very wet! The wind then decided to tease us, sending various items from Eduardo's kit clanking in flight as they bounced away from him. He slammed his soaking sketchbook closed, scrambled after them, and we ran to help, laughing as we too rushed to save our own kits from the rain. I already had my umbrella out to reduce the glare on my screen, so didn't get too wet. Thankfully, my iPad was already safely stowed in my pack. By the time we had all salvaged gear and packs however, it was agreed that we needed to head back to our hotels for a shower and dry clothes.

A quick lunch followed at a streetside café before we headed back to the Sanctuary with determination. The sun and rain continued to play hide and seek throughout the day, and we decided to find a sheltered spot from which to work in peace for at least a couple of hours. The sweeping colonnades beckoned, and we acceded gratefully.

An American TV crew set up and shot their piece before us, ignoring our little group. From our vantage point, I did this next piece.

Second sketch of the day, safe from the elements!

Deciding to work faster as dusk began to fall, I headed over to the Chapel of Apparitions, across the plaza, to a low building with periodic flames shooting from its sides. Fernanda explained that people would buy candles from the makeshift store around the corner, then offer them at this building. On closer inspection, I saw that there were actually rows upon rows of candle holders arrayed for placing candles, but sheer volumes due to the occasion created giant flames that would sometimes shoot 3m (10ft) into the air.  

Fistfuls of candles were bought by the faithful, some piling their arms high.

Some tried to brave the flames and stick candles in holders while those who were overcome by heat tossed them in one by one with a little prayer on their lips.

I then headed to the candle store to sketch before capturing the burning of these waxen tokens of promises and prayer. A light drizzle sprinkled down on us now and then, and out of the blue, the skies opened up with a whooshing roar, sending people scurrying for cover.

We found an overhang to hide under, next to the candle store. I had a chance to draw Eduardo quickly while observing the crowd who waited balefully for the rain to pass. I was particularly tickled by the ingenuity of the man who used his giant bag to shield his head. Great balance too!

We found an overhang to hide under, next to the candle store. I had a chance to draw Eduardo quickly while observing the crowd who waited balefully for the rain to pass. I was particularly tickled by the ingenuity of the man who used his giant bag to shield his head. Great balance too!

We were soon cold, wet and hungry, electing to call it a night. Kasia had also arrived at the hotel, and Fernanda left the Sanctuary earlier to meet her. Eduardo, Louisa and I agreed to follow suit soon. To save time and for easier coordination, all our meals would be had at the hotel, and we trudged back happily for a warm meal, shower and cosy bed.

The next morning dawned with the promise of golden light...which suddenly gave way to yet more rain. Wiser now, Eduardo and I decided to begin from within the Basilica. Seated comfortably in the pews, we quietly got our gear out and began.  

I chose a spot behind 2 older women who took turns praying and whispering to each other. Wish I knew what they were saying.

I didn't know how much I wanted to draw, and began with the women in front of me. My sketch then began growing as I enjoyed the meditative murmur of whispered prayers around me. I glanced over and saw that Eduardo was feeling the same compulsion, so we sat for a little over an hour together, drawing in silent unison. Fernanda joined us as we were finishing, and told us the young men sent to film us wanted to begin.

Right outside the Basilica is a grove of trees with stone circular seats around their bases. Tired pilgrims often took breaks there, and I decided to capture some moments between prayer and contemplation.

Eduardo wanted to the paint the bell tower through the trees, and I felt like something candid. This grove let us both work within easy reach of Fernanda in the Basilica, and the video duo, Pedro and Duarte.

Pope Francis was flying into Fátima that afternoon, and Fernanda warned us that the crowds would really start flooding in soon. We strolled back to the Basilica after lunch to find good spots to wait, and I noticed a distinct uptick in the numbers of people milling around. Where there were hundreds around me before, there were clearly now, thousands. Then we approached what was a quiet side entrance the day before, and with an audible gasp, caught our first glimpse of the crowd! As far as the eye could see, spread across the entire expanse of the Sanctuary, people sat around, filed in and moved about. There was no ground to be seen. Colorful masses of humanity were a Jackson Pollock come to life, splashed across the massive space. At the far end, brilliant specks wriggled in the distance, brandishing flags and banners.

Fernanda gamely tried to lead us through the thickening crowd, in search of a good spot to settle in and sketch from, but every available inch close to where Pope Francis would be later seen at the Chapel of Apparitions, was taken up by chairs, people and all manner of belongings. Human traffic jams snaked in all directions as yet more people tried to squeeze in among the dozing, eating, sleeping, chatting, heaving mass of bodies. And only Kasia and I were with Fernanda! Where would everyone else fit when we didn't even have space to sit? After nearly falling into the lap of one indignant grandma, we decided that it was ok to not be in the line of sight of the Pope that day.

Miraculously, the skies had turned gloriously clear and blue, and after squeezing along like sardines in a canning line, we suddenly emerged into a spacious, shaded corner under ancient pines at one side of the Sanctuary. Here, people were more laid-back and convival. There were folk of every color, from every corner of the globe. Neighbors smiled at each other, some offering snacks to each other as everyone settled into chairs and stools of all kinds to wait out the afternoon. We set up, and Pedro and Duarte, the video guys, were very pleased to see that they had plenty of room to move around and take shots of us. 

As I got to know Kasia, I thought I'd make her the foreground of this waiting-crowd sketch.

I started drawing people in the crowd as hymns were sung, and an enthusiastic Father led the Sanctuary in prayer in Portuguese. Every now and then, I'd hear him mention "Papa Francisco". A few Hallelujahs later, familiar salutations and refrains were repeated. He would try to lead the choir in song, but thankfully, eventually realized that singing was not his strong suit. We sketched on, feeling the energy of the crowd grow notch by notch.

On giant screens set up around the edges, we saw Papa Francisco's plane land at the nearby military airfield, and the crowd whooped with delight. When his chopper circled the Sanctuary overhead, people shouted and waved frantically with tears in their eyes, smartphones trained on the skies. When the Pope Mobile finally appeared in the distance, I realized the wisdom of this space not having a roof. The crowd roared with gusto usually reserved for rock concerts!!! The emotion was so palpable, eventhough I'm not Catholic, I felt my heart swell with exhilaration on seeing the tiny waving figure in white.

From where we sat, we couldn't possibly see the Pope, so I drew him quickly from the giant screens.

The Pope left after Mass that afternoon, and much of the crowd flowed out with him. Fernanda ushered us back to the hotel for dinner. Her husband, Antonio, had joined our troop, and advised us to eat and head back as soon as possible.

I'm not sure what happened. Between a quick shower, getting ready and chatting over dinner, by the time we headed out again, it was within 10 minutes of the main event that night, the Candlelight Mass. People everywhere held candles which had plastic cup wind-shields. Louisa wanted one too, and melted away to get some. I was very concerned that she wouldn't be able to find us again in the milling throng. And it was getting really dark. Fortunately, she wasn't away for long, spotting Eduardo's cap and jacket sticking out over the heads of many.

Pedro and Duarte glanced at each other with concern as we tried to find a good spot. If we thought it was packed this afternoon, it was chock-a-block-crammed-to-the-gills now! Fernanda and Antonio seemed to feel that as local hosts, they needed to find us someplace good, and we squeezed and snaked around the crowd, in tow. Antonio would pause and watch us attentively with a sweet protectiveness,  making sure none of us got lost or left behind, before darting ahead again to scout out possible spots. Everywhere was so packed however! We were right at the back of the Sanctuary, and were now just hoping for a spot that would allow us to see down the sloping plaza towards the Basilica, so the video guys could get decent shots. At some point, we stopped and just filled a pathway as there was nowhere else to go. The view was alright, and we decided as one to just make camp here. Opening our stools, we sat down with our bags at our feet. The trickle of people who tried to move around us eventually gave up, closing behind us.

Antonio had told me as we chatted earlier, that the candlelight mass was one of his favorite parts of Fátima. He told me to pay especially close attention to when people would raise their candles. I set about sketching as soon as we stopped, and elected to just stand since the crowd around me was largely on their feet.. Drawing digitally in the dark? Ha - this is where iPads shine :) 

The Candlelight Mass was definitely a major highlight for me.

I did the piece above, and felt quite contented until I felt Antonio nudge me to say the candle-raising bit was coming. What? I thought I had seen it! But as a chorus of hymns soared in a million voices, and arms lifted flames in a sea of light, I understood what Antonio was talking about. Emotions filled my chest at the now familiar Ave Mária, and I couldn't help but sing along at bits I recognized. My Pencil flew across my screen as I tried to capture the sight of those lights being raised to the heavens as I had no idea how long this ceremony would last and didn't want to miss anything.

2 hours later, the candlelight mass was still going on, but some of us began to feel our internal flames start to stutter. I took Eduardo's lead and headed back to the hotel with Louisa. Fernanda, Antonio and Kasia were still going strong when we slipped away. (We learned later that they left 10 minutes later.) Before nodding off past midnight, I looked out my window and saw that the sea of lights could still be seen glimmering in the Sanctuary. A little sparser, but there nonetheless, hymns still being sung. I sank into sleep with images of dancing flames and glorious singing leading me to deep slumber.

To be continued next week... ;)