The Church and Convent of São Francisco (Convento e Igreja de São Francisco) in Salvador is a well-known tourist destination – its gilt woodcarving is deliberately and overpoweringly impressive. You may have seen it in Michael Palin’s recent BBC documentary series on Brazil. A church of the Franciscan monastic order, the current buildings were begun in 1686 (the convent) and 1708 (the church) though decoration of the interiors continued through the first half of the 18th century.
Praça Anchieta, Pelourinho, Salvador de Bahia
The church is set at the end of a long narrow square – named for one of the first Jesuit missionaries to Brasil in the 16th century, José de Anchieta – off the main square in Pelourinho, the historic town centre.
The cross on the praça is a 19th century addition.
Its facade is in the early baroque style, with large elaborate volutes which support the central gable, and make the composition a little top-heavy …
Central gable flanked by campanile towers with mother-of-pearl tiles
… though it works well close up. You enter via a porch to the right.
Painted perspective on the ceiling of the porch.
Built between 1749 and 1755, the porch is an impressive piece of interior decor, with panels painted on wood, and a striking illusionist ceiling painted by José Joaquim da Rocha in 1774. It’s a bravura display of skill in baroque composition, albeit in paint. Panels in blue and white tile work (azulejos) are a 1782 addition.
Cloisters of the Franciscan monastery, with salvaged stone
From this dark paneled and painted chamber, you emerge into a cloistered stone courtyard lit by a fiercely blue sky. It’s as though you’ve traveled three centuries from inside a Renaissance cabinet of curiosities to step into a surrealist Giorgio de Chirico painting.
The inner walls of the cloister are decorated with azulejo tile panels based on the work of 17th century Flemish artist Otto van Veen, who produced engravings illustrating epigrams from Roman poet Horace.
“Estarás seguro se viveres bem.”
The choices are gloomy and perhaps inevitably sententious – there is much brooding on death and the fate of sinners, as well as on the virtue of knowing your place and of being thrifty. The tiles are held in place by crude repairs and patches in places – an unintentional effect is to underline the ‘tempus fugit’ theme, but sometimes the effect is comic too.
The worthy scholar’s confused mien is understandable – he looks like he’s trapped in a sliding number puzzle.
This looks like an architectural salvage yard.
Van Veen taught Pieter Paul Rubens for a number of years, and produced a number of ’emblem books’ which influenced and served as source material for many later artists.
However bright the skies, nothing can prepare you for the blinding interior of the church, said to be the best example of the igreja dourada or ‘golden church’ style of Brazilian colonial baroque.
Nave with side chapel and pulpit, Igreja de São Francisco, Salvador da Bahia
The splendour of the surfaces, the elaborateness of the carving, the spiralling columns, the profusion of decoration on every available surface, the almost total absence of straight unadorned line, even the choice of complementary colours – white and blue – all are designed to overwhelm the worshipper with the gilded glory of this church.
I found myself looking for a more restful surface on which to focus. The ceiling over the altar was a little quieter.
Gilded painted vault with cherubim over the altar
The nave ceiling was heavily decorated too, but with less gilt.
No rest for the eye
Even the chiaroscuro of a bright window offered some respite from the blazing glory of the dourada style.
Beautifully carved and decorated oriole window high up in the nave
Your eye may alight and rest on the dark lustre of carved jacarandá wood, the work of Frei Luis de Jesus ‘The Woodcarver’, for which this church is also justly famous.
Finial on railing of side chapel
If your eye falls below the handrail, you may wonder how or indeed why the monks were able to decorate their church with such voluptuous sway-backed acolytes.
At the altar the caryatids are fair and gilded, with pink hands and faces.
Upholding the word of God
And above the altar an unusual crucifix, after the image by the Spanish painter Murillo, shows Jesus embracing founder St Francis of Assisi.
But wait, even allowing for fervent religious imagination, no one swept up at the Crucifixion …
Do my eyes deceive me?
High up on the altar, a workman calmly and carefully sweeps up the dust. Another man was going around replacing light bulbs. I found myself resting my eyes on their activity.You welcome such visual interest in the goldstorm of this interior.
Man at work
My perception was truly confused – was this holy water font, donated by Dom João V of Portugal (‘O Magnânimo‘), golden or not? Deliberately chosen no doubt to allude to the dourada style, it is made of yellow conglomerate. Dom João also donated the Horace / van Veen azulejos.
One of a pair at the entrance to the church
When you learn that a fifth of each ton extracted from the gold and diamond mines of Brasil was crown property – Portugal is said to have collected more gold over a few decades than Spain took from the rest of Central and South America over 400 years – and that Dom João was also known as O Freirático because of his preference for nuns as sexual partners, the interior of this church comes into clearer focus.
Dowry donation boxes
Brasilians are philosophical about such cultural history. This piece of furniture in the sacristy was used as a kind of ecclesiastical safety deposit box, where the fathers of prospective brides placed money for their daughters’ dowries and presumably for the cost of their weddings. No visitors to the church were surprised that behind the regularity of its squared facade, some doors gave onto bigger boxes than others.
In 1742 Dom João suffered a stroke which left him, the erstwhile Prince of Brasil, politically ineffectual. He spent the last years of his life, the time of his donations to this church, devoted to religious activities.
Unintended humour of labeled statue in the vestibule, with Biblical Golden Calf behind
The relaxed attitude – now and during his reign – of Brasilians to religious life is at one with the syncretist version of Catholicism tinged with west African Yoruba traditions which continues to grow in Brasil today. Is this statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception actually standing on a crescent moon, like the Yoruba goddess Iemenja?
Brasil’s culture swirls with fascinating cross-currents – the Franciscan Igreja de São Francisco faces the Jesuit Catedral Basílica de Salvador across the square, for all the world like rival football clubs. Both are in a district, Pelourinho, named for the public pillory or whipping post used for punishing African Brasilian slaves “pour encourager les autres”. Brasilians accept such seeming contradictions easily.
” … it is in giving that we receive … ” (Prayer of St Francis)
The irony of a church named for a saint the basis of whose Rule was poverty being decorated with an estimated 960 kilograms of golf leaf – not to mention the dormant power of the Roman Catholic Church in a country where the public education system is by common consent a shambles, political corruption is endemic (see
for an example) and the gap between rich and poor significant – is a little harder to accept.