History of the Centro Cultural São Francisco in João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil

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The Centro Cultural São Francisco is located in the historic centre of João Pessoa in Paraíba.

The Centro Cultural São Francisco is formed by a magnificent architectural complex that includes:

  1. Church of São Francisco
  2. Convento de Santo Antônio
  3. Chapel of the Third Order of São Francisco
  4. Chapel of São Benedito
  5. Terceiros House of Prayer (called the Golden Chapel)
  6. Cloister of the Third Order
  7. a fountain and a large churchyard with a cross, constituting one of the most remarkable Baroque legacies in Brazil.
São Francisco Cultural Centre in João Pessoa
São Francisco Cultural Centre in João Pessoa

For numerous reasons, the city has had several names until it settled on the current one.

See also João Pessoa in Paraíba – Tourist Spots and Historic Centre

History books tell us that, during the Spanish domination, it was called Filipéia de Nossa Senhora das Neves, in honour of the king of Spain, D. Felipe II.

At the time of the invasion and conquest of Paraíba by the Dutch, it was named Frederickstadt (Frederica), in honour of the Prince of Orange, Frederick Henry; much later, at the beginning of 1654, it became Parahyba and then Parayba do Norte, a name that remained until 1930, when the capital of Paraíba became João Pessoa, in honour of the president of the current Parayba do Norte who was assassinated in Recife.

The city began its construction on the highest part, which allowed greater visibility when approaching any enemy attack or any ship entering the Sanhauá River, facilitating its defence. The proximity to the river was also of great importance for the flow and transport of goods.

The city of João Pessoa, like much of Brazil, has a very heterogeneous cultural heritage, because before it was “founded” by the Portuguese, there were Indians who lived in the region of the conquered and founded city.

The first buildings were located on the current General Osório Street, then known as Nova Street, where there were: jail, butcher shop, Town Hall and the first churches. In the vicinity of the Sanhauá River, in the lower part, warehouses were built.

1662 Map of Paraíba - Excellent map of the Brazilian coastline including the captaincies of Paraíba and Rio Grande. The map was drawn after actual surveys by Georg Markgraf, Elias Herckmanns and others, and was among the first maps of Brazil based on non-Portuguese data. The map is richly engraved with a huge scene of a procession of Tupinambás Indians carrying a Dutch flag, part of a sugar mill and three major naval battles depicted at sea. It is also adorned with coats of arms, a compass rose and a title cartouche in strips. The series of maps of the captaincies of Brazil is unlike any other map in Blaeu's atlases. Blaeu first issued this and its companion maps in 1647 for Gaspar Barleus' Rerum per octennium in Brasília. They were also assembled into a large wall map, Brasilia qua parte paret Belgis; the places where the sheets overlap are marked by faint lines on the left. The maps then appeared in the Atlas Maior from 1662.
Map of the Brazilian coast including the captaincies of Paraíba and Rio Grande. of 1662

It was not only the Portuguese who contributed to the cultural heritage, as there were: the Indians; the Spanish who ruled it for a while; and the Dutch who stayed here for 20 years.

All of them, therefore, were responsible for the construction of the cultural heritage that today exists in this location of the Historic Centre, the old upper town.

Many of the buildings built by the Portuguese are now considered historical and cultural heritage.

What prompted the construction of many of these buildings was the coming of religious to the town of Felipéia de Nossa Senhora das Neves, with the mission of catechising the natives.

The city was founded in 1585 and the hill on the right bank of the Sanhauá River was chosen as its initial site.

With the construction of the buildings that housed the administrative bodies as well as the churches and convents, an urban centre was born, thus obeying a strategically planned action. 

In the city, there are neighbourhoods where the narrow streets and alleys limit the view – environments favourable to the residence of groups concerned with preserving their integrity and closed to the curiosity of others.

Cidade Baixa and Cidade Alta were the two markedly separate planes into which the urban centre was divided. The first, occupied by trade, almost always Portuguese, with export firms, both wholesale and retail.

The second, built for the exaltation of God and the exercise of power, through churches, monasteries, palaces and buildings of high standard, always in contrast to the small houses that came down the slopes.

Where the church of the patron saint Nossa Senhora das Neves was built, were from where the streets left, the first down the slope, ensured the connection with the warehouses of the port of the staircase for shipment of goods, ás banks of the Sanhauá, the second, current General Osório, won denomination of New street, where it had the chamber, the butcher and chain.

In this same street the Benedictines built their monastery, followed by the Carmelites.

The town had a cross shape, six main streets and churches, with the Franciscan convent to the north, the Church of Mercy to the south, the Carmelite convent to the east and the Benedictines to the west.

A little history of the São Francisco Cultural Centre and its relationship with the city of João Pessoa

The first religious community to set foot in Paraiba was the Franciscans, who came to catechise the indigenous people of the region, in response to Frutuoso Barbosa, who would have asked Friar Melchior for his contribution, since he would have helped to found some convents in Olinda, Salvador and others.

Soon after, Friar Antônio Campo Maior and some other Franciscans arrived to help Friar Melchior found the first convent in the captaincy.

The work of the Franciscans was not confined to a single factor, because in addition to catechesis with the Indians they also supported those who came to this land from Portugal and worked to build the vast architectural ensemble that is the church and convent.

Friar Antônio Maior had been the first guardian of it, but he only held this position for 2 (two) years, as he was transferred to Igarassu.

He had treated the natives of the region with great care in catechesis and was very well regarded by all, both natives (the Tabajaras Indians) and the colonisers.

It should be emphasised that it was he who sought a more suitable site for the construction of the convent. So much so that he preferred a location near the area where the foundation of the city had begun, because there was a lot of wood, limestone and water in its natural springs, one located in the convent itself.

The construction of the church/convent took a while to start, and they immediately built a dwelling for twelve friars and the functioning of the services that were ready in mid-1591, they were not definitive serving only to support the Franciscans who were here.

In 1599, the construction was interrupted due to disagreements between the Franciscans and the then governor Feliciano Coelho de Carvalho and his way of dealing with the natives.

Thus: The action of the Franciscan missionaries in Paraíba was thus, full of sacrifices and misunderstandings, always involved in conflicts, sometimes with religious, sometimes with politicians, but always turned to the effort of catechesis and the protection of the weakest.

Quando ocorreu a invasão dos holandeses na Capitania da Parayba, estes tomaram o convento e o transformaram em quartel general e residência para o governador holandês, durou este domínio de 1634 a 1655.

At this time the works were stopped, returning when the Portuguese retook the captaincy, with much support from Friar Manuel dos Martírios. This construction dragged on for another 123 years, when in 1779 the façade of the church was completed.

The construction of the church only came to an end in the 18th century, taking about 200 (two hundred) years until it is as it is today.

The reorganisation of the religious territory constitutes a collective awareness that religious facts are important components of culture and should be taken into account as a study of geography.

The monument had several uses throughout its construction, since in addition to convent and seminary, it had the house of exercises where they held a moment of silence; vigil; cemeteries for illustrious people to be buried.

In this place, it is still a point that arouses curiosity in people about the existence of a passage, which would have been built by the Dutch, to make it possible to escape to Cabedelo, which is nothing more than a legend.

In mid-1894, the convent was occupied by the governor of the time who kept a military hospital and a school for apprentice sailors there, but it did not last long as the bishop took the convent back.

It was a hostel for immigrants, a diocesan seminary and a college.

The use of image interpretation and scenarios retains its centrality in a geographical universe, generating from one point of view a dimension of this use for a question of geographical analysis.

Where religious territoriality in the cultural geography approach means the set of practices developed by institutions, religious groups in order to control people, objects in a given time/period.

“Religion is an object of interest for various academic disciplines such as history, sociology, anthropology and geography”.

Since mid-1979, the church and convent have been transformed into a museum of Baroque, modern and popular sacred art, open to visitors.

It is traditional to use this church for weddings of people living in the capital (in the chapel Casa da Casa de Oração Ordem Terceira de São Francisco), and it also caters for religious groups of the population for retreats, due to the bucolic location.

This museum, known as the São Francisco Cultural Centre, is where the tourist aspect of visiting one of the outstanding attractions of cultural and historical tourism in the city of João Pessoa is very well developed.

This complex has been listed by the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute since 1938.

At the beginning of the last century, the writer Mário de Andrade recognised the construction of the São Francisco Cultural Centre as ‘the most beautiful and original from the Northeast to Bahia’.

The most important Baroque art complex in Paraíba, which began to be built in 1589, is an unmissable programme. The visit, which can be guided (40 minutes), begins in the oldest area of the complex, the cloister (completed around 1730), and continues in the Church of St Anthony, where there is one of the most beautiful pulpits in the world according to UNESCO.

In the sacristy, 18th-century tiles, floors and furniture. Next comes the richest part of the building: the chapel of the Third Order of St Francis, which impresses with the amount of gold on the altars.

On its ceiling, the Baroque illusionist painting the Glorification of the Franciscan Saints catches the eye. Climbing the staircase, adorned with Carrara marble, you reach two simple museums of popular and sacred art, with images and wooden sculptures. Made of rosewood, the choir, dating from 1791, retains its original features.

The tour ends in the courtyard, where you’ll find St Anthony’s Fountain and the stone-carved Sundial.

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