Arts & Tradition

The Church and Convent of São Francisco: A Blend of Portuguese and Brazilian Artistry

Larger than life: Art that inspires us through the ages
BY Ariane Triebswetter TIMEAugust 13, 2022 PRINT

Some of Brazil’s most beautiful churches are located in the colorful, historic city of Salvador, in the state of Bahia. Among them, one stands out: The church and convent of São Francisco (St. Francis) is a magnificent representation of both Portuguese and Brazilian artistry from the 18th century.

The initial convent and church were built in 1587 by friars of the Franciscan order. Unfortunately, these were destroyed during the Dutch invasion of Bahia in the 17th century. Father Vicente das Chagas began reconstruction in a grandiose style in 1686. Multiple artists worked on decorations to complete the project in the 18th century.

While the church square is relatively simple, the church’s interior is glorious. It is lavishly ornate and gilded, a decorative technique for applying gold to a surface. Gold leaf and gold dust cover the church’s walls, pillars, archways, and vaulted ceilings. European Rococo extravagance combines with local faunal and floral elements, the definition of Brazilian Baroque, and a unique Brazilian architectural style.

European influences continue with azulejos—glazed ceramic tiles from Portugal—which are found throughout Brazil’s colonial churches. These tiles are organized in ornate panels depicting allegorical scenes based on Flemish engravings from the 17th century and Latin quotes from the famous poet Horace.

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The entrance hall of the São Francisco Church exhibits multiple religious paintings and azulejo panels displaying biblical scenes, making the church unique. The Portuguese influence is noticeable throughout the church, with the ceramic tiles imported from Lisbon in 1748, after the church’s reconstruction. (Paul R. Burley/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
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One of about 50,000 azulejo panels in the church and convent of São Francisco. São Francisco has the most azulejos of all of South America. Here, the phrase “Cantemus Domino,” which means “Let us sing to God,” is illustrated. (Paul R. Burley/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
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One of the details of the church’s entrance hall is a bas-relief of a putto holding flowers, in an elaborate framing. Putti are little boy figures, sometimes with wings, that are often depicted in Baroque and Rococo art. The gilded woodwork combines Portuguese and Brazilian artistry. (Paul R. Burley/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
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When visitors enter the church, they are greeted by a lavishly decorated interior. The impressive detailing enhances its architectural beauty through panels of azulejos, sacred paintings, and extensive use of gilding. The ceiling has impressive sculpted woodwork with gilded finishes and a hanging lamp. Golden foliage continues throughout the interior, on the sculpted columns and arches, and on the eight columns supporting the side altars. About one ton of gold was used in the church and convent, which were built with local sandstone from Bahia, a state in Brazil.  (Leon Petrosyan/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
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Another of the church’s striking elements is the wooden ceiling, created by artist José Joaquim da Rocha in 1774. The ceiling was painted in an illusionistic perspective, a Renaissance technique used to create the illusion of depth. The wooden carvings in star, diamond, and octagonal shapes hold sacred paintings. Both the ceiling and pulpit are decorated with biblical scenes, and the azulejos display allegorical scenes with moral messages from Roman mythology. (Larissa Thans Carneiro/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
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This side chapel, dedicated to the veneration of St. Joseph and used for private prayer, displays impressive gilded woodwork and elaborate arches. Angels, flowers, leaves, and birds intertwine throughout the backdrop and around the altar. This shows the unique Brazilian Baroque art and architecture based on the 18th-century European Baroque style. (Paul R. Burley/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
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The church has a two-story cloister with a covered courtyard often found in religious buildings. This one has a simple aesthetic, with religious paintings and azulejos imported from Lisbon. Approximately 35,000 azulejos are displayed in the cloister, inspired by prints from the emblem book “The Work of Quintus Horace Flacci” by Otto van Veen. The book is a collection of mythological illustrations, with moralistic quotes from Horace. The azulejos-filled panel around the outside wall of the cloister depicts a main street or avenue with people walking along public buildings of 18th-century European architecture and arches, framed by fauna and flora, and putti. (Paul R. Burley/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
Ariane Triebswetter is an international freelance journalist, with a background in modern literature and classical music.
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