Given the strength of religious feeling in Brasil, you might expect the Museum of Religious Art in Salvador da Bahia to house a significant collection, and to be thronged with visitors. ‘Yes’ to the first, but a clear ‘no’ to the second – the museum has excellent collections of religious statuary, paintings, silver and other artefacts, but the attendant told us that visitor numbers had been affected by the European downturn, since that is the origin of the majority of visitors.

Entrance with finely carved gate

The museum was built as a Barefoot Carmelite monastery between 1667 and 1697, serving as a seminary from 1837 to 1953. It’s tucked down the Rua do Sodré, off the busy Rua Carlos Gomes thoroughfare. An unfashionable down-at-heel area, the architectural heritage is nevertheless of high quality, both the Museum itself and some neighbouring buildings. Security is evident and cautious. We were advised by the parking attendant to be wary, but we saw family life going on too – sons visiting older parents – in the same street. From the Museum, the view over the Bahia de Todos os Santos is lovely.

Elegant town houses nearby, squatted for now

The scrolling volutes of the facade suggest an interesting building, and the interior does not disappoint. Seventeenth century tiles – azulejos – showing flora and fauna and religious imagery line the eight confessional niches and the walls, and also appear on the facade of the church. The confessionals, built as part of the original church so that monks could hear confession without leaving the monastery, are unique in Brasil.

A plain and elegant interior – round sandstone arches and a white plastered vaulted ceiling over sandstone Doric columns – is crowned with a simple cupola. The floor of polished wood burial niches is divided by stone courses. Only the altarpiece is ornate, made of finely wrought silver and silver gilt, with a Madonna floating above.

Early baroque facade

You need to remind yourself that this is a museum, not a church. What’s perhaps more surprising is that building was in serious disrepair before the Museum was transferred there in 1957. That was the initiative of the Rector of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) Edgar Santos Rego, a key figure in the cultural life of Salvador and of Brasil. Though it’s not much visited by Brasilians, it is a popular venue for wedding ceremonies.

Salvaged tile-work collage left of the entrance

You are directed and supervised carefully around the collection by the attendants. The Museum discourages photography, so you will have to imagine the charming details of this interior – on the hand basin for officiating clerics, bronze taps in the shape of dolphins against quatre-foils of madder and veined black marble, leaping deer and piping birds on the auzulejos, the light, cool, spacious interior, the arrays of male and female saints – separated in image as in religious life – mounted in serried rows on the walls of an upstairs room. Or you could visit it in person. It’s a worthwhile and refreshing detour from the tourist trail.