In Brasil, you notice that people sometimes wear at their wrist a length of thin coloured ribbon, with words printed on it. These are the fitas or fitinhas do Bonfim, a kind of lucky charm for the wearer and a souvenir of their visit to Salvador in Bahia. Though they are sold everywhere on the street and in shops in Salvador, they originate from the church of Our Lord of the Good End, a Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, on a rise at the tip of the Itapagipe Peninsula in the northern part of the city.

Tradition suggests that if you have the ribbon tied around the wrist with three knots, making a mental request or wish for each knot, and leave the ribbon in place until it falls off through natural wear, your wishes will be granted. Visitors also tie the fitinha to the church railings, or elsewhere on the building.

Fitinhas do BonFim tied to the railings of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim overlooking Bahia

The church is a pleasingly proportioned mid-eighteenth century building, more modest than many of the other well-known churches in Bahia, with a white-tiled facade. It is named for the devotion to Jesus at the moment of his death (the bon fim), imported like many of Brasil’s earlier traditions from Portugal.

Nosso Senhor do Bonfim on Montserrat hill on the Itapagipe peninsula in lower Salvador

The fitas are the length of the right arm of the statue of Jesus crucified, kept atop the altar inside the church and brought out on the feast day, January 6. The ribbon is said to have been used in the nineteenth century for suspending a pilgrim’s medal around the neck. By the 1960s it was being sold on the streets of Bahia, and was adopted by adventurous hippy travellers as a Bahiano accessory.

47-centimetre-long souvenir

What is perhaps less obvious is that the ribbons are in the colours traditionally associated with various West African Yoruba gods or orixas, and that Nosso Senhor do Bonfim is closely identified with the Yoruba deity Oxala, father of the orixas and creator of humankind.

His right arm to guide you

His colour is white. Brasilians have developed the tradition of donning new white clothes at the turn of the year, and other New Year traditions such as going down to the beach and jumping seven successive waves to bring luck for the coming year. And at this most popular of Brasilian churches, there is the evidence of another religious tradition.

The faithful gather from afar to admire the evidence

Described as a museum of ex-voto objects, a side room of the church is festooned with the gratitude and the evidence of the faithful who have been cured of the ailments of their limbs and other body parts. A group of French tourists – also a staunchly Catholic country – were led around by an enthusiastic guide. These additional beliefs seem to accumulate with ease on the margins of the religious environment of Brasil.

Testimonials, photographs, replicas, racquets …

The church has an air of rich calm, born of its generous proportions, good light and the sweet breezes of its elevated position.

Elaborate altar set within simple walls below a painted ceiling

Simple nave, open to the elements

The plain backdrop has the effect of making the more heavily decorated elements – wrought silver lamps, inlaid marble floor, painted and gilded ceiling –  very striking, helped by their well-judged use of materials and proportions. This is a beautiful building.

Finely wrought silver lamp

Strong and simple monochrome floor

Beautifully decorated ceiling over the altar

A believer may of course see the crucified Christ high up on the altar, with the Virgin and child beneath, as the most significant image. And striking a more severe note, a pair of paintings at the entrance remind us of the consequences of our actions, and shows us that the Protestant church did not have a monopoly on visions of hellfire.

Our Lady, Star of the Sea

Death of the sinner – the wages of sin

Institutions of the Roman Catholic church – saints, the confessional – are in clear evidence. They are held in fine balance against the elegance of the baroque architecture of the Age of Enlightenment, and leavened with the richness of African beliefs.

Confessional on show in side passage

Saints wrapped against the dust in the gift shop on the square – and one real for 20 fitinhas

One can certainly imagine that the spectacle on the 6th of January is gripping – a procession from the church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception on the beach eight kilometres down the coast, led by throngs of Bahiana women in traditional full white lace dresses, who come to wash the steps of the church with perfumed water, to the sound of drums and Yoruba chants. This cathedral of the Diocese of Bonfim can indeed claim to represent Bahia, and perhaps something of the richness of the spirit of Brasil.

January 6 at Bonfim, as per mural at Salvador airport

To the sound of drumming