The Church and Convent of São Francisco, built in the 18th century, is one of the richest in Brazil and the most exuberant in Salvador. Some consider it to be the most beautiful example of Portuguese Baroque in the world.
Its origins date back to 1686, following a project by Father Vicente das Chagas.
The convent was started first and in 1708 the foundation stone of the church was laid, with the building completed in 1723, but its decoration took even longer.
The convent was completed in 1752, but the whole complex was only finished in 1782, with the tiling and finishing of the gatehouse.
In the 20th century, the buildings underwent restoration work on several occasions.
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Features and History of the Church and Convent of São Francisco
The church’s floor plan is unusual among Franciscan buildings in northeastern Brazil, as it has three naves, whereas the more usual design has just one nave.
The façade, facing a large square where there is a cross, has a Mannerist influence, with two relatively simple side towers and a more decorated central volume, especially in the pediment.
The church is especially precious for its exuberant interior decoration.
All the interior surfaces – walls, columns, ceiling, chapels – are covered in intricate carvings and gilding, with florets, friezes, arches, volutes and countless figures of angels and birds scattered at various points, as well as panels of Portuguese tiles with various moralistic scenes and inscriptions.
It is considered one of the most significant expressions of the Baroque in Brazil.
The ceiling has paintings by Frei Jerônimo da Graça, done between 1733 and 1737.
The side gate that gives access to the convent has an illusionist painting on the ceiling attributed to José Joaquim da Rocha in the second half of the 18th century.
The convent was built around a square cloister, has a sub-floor and two floors above street level.
Its decoration shows rich tile panels from the first half of the 18th century, some of them created by Bartolomeu Antunes de Jesus in 1737 in Lisbon.
The first disciples of St. Francis of Assisi arrived in Salvador in 1587, the year in which the first convent was probably founded.
A few decades later, when the Dutch invaded in 1624, both the church and the friars’ quarters were left in ruins and the complex had to be rebuilt.
And with the growth of the order, in 1686, the Franciscan superior, Friar Vicente das Chagas, promoted the work of not only enlarging, but practically building a new convent and a new church, which had to be much larger than the previous ones.
So, on the feast of St. Anthony that year, the foundation stone of the new church was laid.
The work took many years and several generations of friars to complete. In 1713, under the direction of the superior Friar Hilário da Visitação, the church already had altars (still without gold) and was consecrated.
However, the general structure of the building was only completed ten years later, when the façade, entirely clad in stone, was finished.
Throughout the 18th century, many additions were made to the church: new altars were made (and the existing ones were covered in gold), the ceiling was decorated, the walls were covered with tiles from Lisbon, balustrades were installed, etc.
This church is considered one of the most beautiful in Brazil and one of the best examples of Portuguese Baroque in the world.
Below, a detail of the stone façade, highlighting the image of St. Francis and the symbol of the Franciscan order (the arm of Christ crossed with that of St. Francis). On the same emblem, the coat of arms of Portugal.
Below: the framed paintings on the ceiling depict passages from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, as well as Old Testament characters who were foreshadowed.
The crossing arch bears the same coat of arms of the Franciscan order, with the arms of Portugal.
On the two side altars you can see, on the left, an image of the Immaculate Conception (a devotion especially propagated by the Franciscans) and, on the right, St. Anthony of Lisbon (or Padua), who was also a disciple of St. Francis.
Below, an overview of the church.
The side chapels are dedicated to St. Anne, St. Lucy and St. Iphigenia on one side, and St. Benedict, St. Peter of Alcântara and St. Joseph on the other. The rosewood balustrades were designed by Friar Luís de Jesus, a lay Franciscan brother.
Above, altar of the Immaculate Conception.
Below, the transept altar dedicated to St. Louis of Tolosa.
And below, the altar on the opposite side of the transept, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Glory.
Below, the main chapel, with its exuberant gilded woodwork.
The floor of the chancel is made of marble in different colors, worked to represent foliage. The floor came from Portugal in 1738. The tiles on the walls, also Portuguese, depict scenes from the life of St. Francis.
As a corollary, on the throne of the high altar is the image of St. Francis before the crucified Lord – the reality of the cross and sacrifice, the basis of Christianity, reigning over all the grace and exuberance of the Baroque.
Cloister of the Convent of São Francisco in Salvador
In 1749, when the Franciscan superior was Friar Manuel de Santa Maria, the convent’s cloister was completed. It adjoins the church and is decorated with the largest set of Portuguese tiles in Brazil.
The prints depict thoughts from a Spanish work called “Teatro moral de la vida humana y de toda la Philosophia de los antigos y modernos”, which in turn was inspired by the work “Emblemas de Horácio”, published in Belgium in 1608.
Above, the inscribed phrase reads: “Rich is he who covets nothing”
Above, the message is: “Death awaits everyone equally”. On the left is a king and on the right a poor man, both stricken by death.
Above is the phrase: “Virtue is in the middle”. A thought that goes back to Aristotle, and which, in the engraving, is represented by a woman between two others, one of whom is a hoarder of wealth (on the left) and the other a prodigal (on the right).
The simplicity and rusticity of the convent’s other facilities, including refectories, rooms and cells, attest to the fact that there was a well-defined dividing line between the splendor of divine worship and the poverty and detachment of the friars’ personal lives (vow of poverty).
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Tourism and Travel Guide to the Church and Convent of São Francisco in Salvador