History and Architecture of Olinda Cathedral

The Cathedral of Olinda (Catedral da Sé de Olinda), also known as the Church of Saint Saviour of the World, is located in the Historic Site of Olinda, occupying a prominent position in the city’s landscape. In addition to being the first religious building constructed by the Portuguese on their arrival in the Captaincy of Pernambuco, it rises from the top of a hill, enjoying a privileged view of the historic site and the neighbouring city of Recife.

The month of August is dedicated to the patron saint São Salvador do Mundo, when religious festivities take place.

Founded in 1540 under the name Matriz do São Salvador, it is the oldest religious temple in the town of Olinda, marking the Portuguese presence in northeastern Brazil.

With its simple construction in wood and rammed earth, it was initially composed of a nave (the interior of churches, from the front door to the high altar), a chancel and a sacristy (a room next to the high altar for the storage of liturgical vestments and sacred objects).

Subsequently, successive renovations and extensions moulded the church, which arrived in 1584 with three naves and side chapels.

The vault (a concave ceiling and a barrel vault is a variation of the concave ceiling) of the chancel was then designed, and the nave, sacristy and bell tower were enlarged, with the renovations being completed in 1621.

The privileged position of this church in relation to the old town of Olinda and its prominent position in the landscape were recorded in various old drawings and engravings, using the most distinct artistic techniques, always in generous proportions.

With the Dutch invasion of the town of Olinda in 1630, followed by the fire that ruined a large part of the civil and religious buildings in 1631, the Matriz do São Salvador do Mundo fell into ruins.

View of Olinda from the Cathedral Church of 1662
View of Olinda. Oil on canvas by Frans Post, 1662. The Cathedral Church, partially destroyed, is depicted in this painting

.It was only after 1656, when the Pernambuco Restoration broke out, that work began on rebuilding the church, which consisted of successive extensions and interventions, leading, twenty years later, in 1676, to the elevation of the parish church to cathedral status, which was then inaugurated the following year.

During the Dutch occupation, it was partially destroyed, but continued to be used for Catholic worship, as recorded by the Dutch painter Frans Post. The church was rebuilt after the Dutch period and elevated to a cathedral in 1676.

The probable date of the introduction of Portuguese tiles on the side walls of the nave, which no longer exist, is 1740.

In 1911, the church underwent remodelling work that radically altered its internal decoration, the main façade and its volume, which was completed in 1919 after some stoppages.

This controversial intervention followed the project of the architect Rodolfo Lima, who opted for the neo-Gothic style of architectural restoration.

After 1930, the Cathedral Church underwent a further alteration of its features, then undertaken by Archbishop Miguel de Lima Valverde, transforming it into a neo-Baroque style in the Germanic style, emphasising the verticality of the bell towers.

See also Tourist Spots of Olinda PE.

The result achieved was far removed from the character of Luso-Brazilian architecture.

Between 1974 and 1978, the most recent major restoration work was carried out on the Sé Church, funded by the former Historic Cities Restoration Programme of the then SPHAN. The entire project, designed by the architect José Luiz da Mota Menezes, was guided by historical and archaeological research, and the church acquired its current appearance.

Although the successive renovations and interventions on the monument over time have resulted in the loss or removal of several of its essential integrated assets, this church still retains an architectural design and historical importance of great singularity in Olinda.

The tiles on the side walls of the nave, the rich carvings and paintings, as well as the altar and the altarpiece (a carved wooden or stone construction on which an altar rests, with niches for images or frames for paintings) in the chancel, the artistic panels there, the ceilings of the nave, among other elements, were partly lost and partly transferred to museums in the region.

This and other reasons have justified the loss of integrity of the historic monument.

Architectural aspects of Olinda Cathedral

The Church of Saint Saviour of the World (Igreja de São Salvador do Mundo), or Olinda Cathedral (Catedral da Sé de Olinda), has an architectural style similar to the influence of Italian Mannerism.

Igreja de São Salvador do Mundo ou Igreja da Sé de Olinda
Igreja de São Salvador do Mundo ou Igreja da Sé de Olinda

.It consists of three naves, with the main nave more generous in width than the others, even standing out volumetrically from the side naves and delimited by generous arcades (passage with at least one side with a succession of arches).

The main nave also has a wooden ceiling with a barrel vault. Four deep chapels face the side naves on each side.

In its current design, the narthex (porch adjacent to the church, covered and delimited by arcades or colonnades) or choir (place located above the access door and at the beginning of the nave, for choir singing or praying) were not designed, nor were the tribunes (a kind of balcony from which religious ceremonies are attended) on the nave’s side walls.

The floor of the entire church is tiled and the roof of the three naves is made of reinforced concrete; the side naves have a sloping wooden ceiling, but no ornaments.

The openings in the ceiling of the main nave allow natural light to pass through, which is complemented by the oculus (circular or oval opening or window in gables or pediments), which provides internal lighting and ventilation) of the main façade, leading to a bath of light at the high altar.

Interior of Olinda Cathedral
Interior of Olinda Cathedral

In the transept (a transverse nave like an arm of a cross, which separates the chancel from the naves of the church), the remains of Dom Hélder Câmara, former archbishop of Olinda and Recife, are buried.

The current chancel is made of masonry and does not have secular stylistic elements; it is simple and lacks ornaments. Its roof is domed and also unadorned.

However, the crucifix and wooden chair stand out.

The sacristy is large and well decorated. It has extensive rosewood furniture used to store the vestments, as well as a marble washbasin and a painted ceiling.

On the upper floor, above the sacristy, is the chapter meeting room.

The last intervention on the main façade followed iconographic documentation from the late 19th century, which showed the existence of two towers on the monument.

Sacristy of the Cathedral of the See of Olinda
Sacristy of the Cathedral of the See of Olinda

In keeping with these records, it was designed in a symmetrical, sober manner, without any ornamentation, with a main doorway with stone surrounds (mouldings or friezes that finish off the ornate surface) and columns to give it prominence.
and columns to emphasise it.

The side doors, cusped (rectangles with recessed or projecting frames, which may or may not be decorated) like the central door, lead to the side naves.

The pediment (triangular upper section in classical buildings, with three parts: the cymatium, the gable and the tympanum) is simple and unornamented, with only a central oculus and a cross, and pinnacles (the highest point of a building) at the ends.

The bell towers have a quadrangular section and a pyramidal roof, with pinnacles also at the ends.

The churchyard (the open space in front of the church, which may be walled or fenced) and the church are of generous proportions, surrounded by a wall and covered in stone flooring.

Terrace of the Cathedral of the Cathedral of Olinda
Terrace of the Cathedral of the Cathedral of Olinda

In order to emphasise the monument’s importance in the landscape, the urban layout that encompasses the church and follows the top of the hill and the slopes has favoured a large square in front of it, which favours its visibility from a distance.

Attached to the church is a house that is part of the ensemble due to its old character. It has two floors, with openings in the façades framed by stone surrounds.

One of the façades has a small porch terrace and an outdoor area adjacent to the house and the religious monument.

This area is a sure destination for tourists, as it offers a very special view of Olinda’s historic landscape,

It is also possible to enjoy the city of Recife, due to the visual permeability that the Olinda site offers.

From the mid-1970s, when a major architectural and urban intervention began in the church and its surroundings, resulting in its valorisation, informal occupations were registered in the public space of the square in front of the monument.

Even with successive efforts to displace this irregular trade, then known as “Feirinha da Sé”, it is still present, characterised by the sale of local handicrafts, drinks and tapioca, attracting the curiosity of tourists and visitors.

Even with the loss of a large part of its integrated assets, the Sé Church still holds relevant examples of imagery and old furniture inside.

Of particular note is the image of Saint Saviour of the World affixed to one of its nave columns and the other collections scattered in its side chapels.

History and Architecture of Olinda Cathedral

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