The Church of São Francisco de Assis, located in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, is considered one of the masterpieces of the Brazilian Baroque.
During the colonial period, no city grew as much and as fast as the curvaceous Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais.
The abundance of gold and precious metals meant that thousands of people flocked to the place in search of easy riches and business opportunities.
Among them were the Portuguese and Brazilian elites, both cultural and political. And also the religious.
At that time, Catholicism was an integral part not only of local culture but also of government power itself;
Building churches was a way of repaying the graces received and also of showing power.
Each brotherhood – religious institutions made up of lay people, whose aim was to help their members and the community, but with obedience to the rules sanctioned by the Catholic Church – sought to build their church, high up on the hills that made up the city, always as beautiful and luxurious as possible.
It was in this context that the Church of St. Francis of Assisi was built.
The Third Order of the Penance of St. Francis of Assisi, the first order created in what was then Vila Rica, brought together the most important names in society. The members met in other churches until, in 1762, they began to consider the possibility of building their own church;
History and Architecture of the Church of São Francisco de Assis in Ouro Preto
Construction began in 1766, the height of gold mining in Ouro Preto.
The two most prestigious artists of the time were hired to carry them out: Antônio Francisco Lisboa, better known as Aleijadinho, who was responsible for the design and project of the church; and Manuel da Costa Ataíde, or Mestre Ataíde, who was responsible for the paintings in the church of São Francisco de Assis.
The church of São Francisco de Assis, completed in 1810, could not have been anything less than exquisite.
Parts of the church were restored in 1883 and 1925, but not with enough attention.
That’s why an extended restoration was needed, as happened in 2001. The project involved restoring various parts of the high altar, the six side altars and the floor – mostly to fix pieces that had come loose and to clean and restore the original colors and textures;
The care taken with the church is fundamental: as well as being one of the most important buildings in Ouro Preto, the first Brazilian city to be awarded the title of World Cultural Heritage by Unesco in 1981, it is also one of the Seven Wonders of Portuguese Origin in the world.
“The church of São Francisco de Assis is the most perfect model of the Baroque of Minas Gerais,” says Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Oliveira in Minas Gerais Dom Francisco Barroso Filho.
With its innovative contours, exquisite ornaments, delicate sculptures and vibrant paintings, the church of São Francisco de Assis impresses. Several elements contribute to it being considered by many to be the masterpiece of the Baroque of Minas Gerais.
But to understand what the Baroque of Minas Gerais was, we need to understand the arrival of this artistic style in the country and its progressive “Brazilianization”.
The Baroque style began in Italy at the end of the 16th century and arrived in Brazil in the mid-18th century. Among its strongest characteristics are drama, realism and exuberance, especially with regard to decorative elements;
For a long time, the Baroque made in Brazil was seen as inferior, even the Portuguese-inspired Baroque, due to the lack of training of the local artists and the rudimentary way in which the artisans worked. The first masters were even Portuguese and brought with them traditional “know-how”.
The initial manifestations of the Baroque in Brazil, which took place between 1710 and 1730, are called the first phase; the style is marked by small chapels with twisted columns, gilded woodwork and paintings in shades of blue and red;
Over the years, gold mining reached its highest levels, reflected in the artistic flair of most of the buildings.
Temples with neoclassical façades, an excess of decorative elements and white and gold polychromy are some of the strongest elements of the so-called second phase of the Baroque period, which ran from 1730 to 1760.
It was during this period that the use of gold became more pronounced;
The Basílica Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar, also in Ouro Preto, is a clear example of the Baroque of this period;
From 1760 onwards, the art made in Brazil was elevated to another level. The mixture of artistic influences, the production of sculptures from local raw materials – especially soapstone – and the freedom with which local artists drew, led to the development of an original art, unlike any other.
This is why the third phase of Baroque is also known as Barroco Mineiro. “The basic elements remain the same, but the way of working is freer, not tied to traditional forms,” says Ivo Porto de Menezes, a professor at the UFMG School of Architecture and the Ouro Preto School of Mines.
The style is often called Rococo, in which the main characteristics are the break with right angles, the exchange of excessive detail for greater decorative lightness and the profusion of flowers, bows, garlands and circular elements.With a thorough tour of the church of São Francisco de Assis, in Ouro Preto, it is possible to find all these peculiarities.
If the Baroque of Minas Gerais is one of the first artistic expressions to be originally Brazilian and if the Church of São Francisco de Assis is considered the best example of this artistic style, visiting the church means getting to know one of the founders of an aesthetic that excels in originality. In fact, Aleijadinho used architectural features that were unusual for temples in Minas Gerais.
The façade and main body have rounded shapes and the two towers are set back, unlike the churches of the time.
Also on the façade, angels point to the coats of arms of the Portuguese crown and the Franciscan order, which support the image of the Virgin Mary. It’s curious to note that the virgin is wearing a sling on her right arm, just as Aleijadinho did.
In the medallion above, a representation of St. Francis of Assisi on Monte Alverne, the place where the saint is said to have received the stigmata.
The façade of the Church of São Francisco de Assis has military references. “The side windows are reminiscent of military buildings, whose purpose was to facilitate vigilance.
The two front towers allude to the shape of cannons and the domes are reminiscent of helmets used in the Middle Ages. All of these elements can be interpreted as an allusion by Aleijadinho to the Middle Ages, when St. Francis lived”;
The interior of the church is very detailed. The six side altars are decorated in the best rococo style, full of flowers and garlands, many of them covered in gold carvings. The background of the altars and the walls of the church are white and gold, tones that give the work greater lightness.
The chancel depicts the Holy Trinity, with the Virgin in the center, covered by a wooden vault with four medallions, one in each corner. In the altarpieces you can closely observe the facial expressions drawn by Aleijadinho, famous for his Mongolian eyes, prominent cheekbones and split chin.
Two of his main works inside the church are the two pulpits, which he – a mulatto, the son of Portuguese master builder Manoel Francisco Lisboa and his African slave Isabel – made with the help of three slaves.
The presence of blacks working on the works draws the attention of various specialists. Art historian Germain Bazin is one of those who admits to this surprise, as described in his book “A arquitetura religiosa barroca no Brasil”.
“It’s surprising that the most perfect realization of this Portuguese rococo took place in Brazil, and not in the metropolis, and that it was due to a mestizo.”
The painting of the ceiling, done by Mestre Ataíde, is a spectacle in itself. The shades of blue and red were used extensively to give shape to the representation of Our Lady of the Angels. The columns, drawn in perspective, give the impression that the saint is moving further and further away from the earthly world and closer to the divine world.
Next to her are several angels and cherubs who play instruments and seem to be celebrating the saint’s elevation to heaven. Ataíde painted a series of panels on the sides – which simulate Portuguese tiles -representing the life of Abraham.
The artistic investment made in the church was not just for decorating the church or for aesthetic enjoyment: it was also a way of attracting more worshippers.
Even today, the beauty of the sculptures and paintings means that a significant number of people visit the church, marvel at the art and experience some of the Catholic precepts, regardless of their religion.
Thousands of Brazilians and foreigners travel to Ouro Preto every year. Visiting the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi is an almost obligatory program. “Tourism and devotion can coexist very well, as long as one respects the needs of the other,” says Ivo Porto de Menezes. Tourism is welcome, but it is forbidden during masses and other celebrations.
History of Saint Francis of Assisi
As a young Francis, inside the church of San Damiano, Giovanni heard the voice of Christ asking him to rebuild the temple in which he was praying. He went back to his house, took some fine fabrics from his father’s store, sold them in the town market and gave all the money to the priest.
His father, furious, sent for him. Frightened, Giovanni hid in a barn.
Later, in an attempt to reveal his desire to serve the church, his father chained him in a cellar.
When he was released by his mother, he tried to seek out the local bishop, but was once again captured by his father, who still demanded compensation for the cloth he had sold. So Giovanni stripped naked in front of everyone, as a symbol of renouncing his inheritance, and left, naked, for a life with the Catholic Church.
From then on, the young Giovanni – also known as Francis due to a childhood nickname – led a life of devotion and faith.
More than that, he renewed the Catholicism of his time through his own actions. Inspired by the life of Christ, he lived itinerantly and in a state of extreme poverty, preaching the word of the Gospel and always interested in helping the poor and miserable.
“No one is perfect enough not to be able to learn from another, and no one is totally devoid of values not to be able to teach his brother something.”
Francisco died in the city of Assisi in 1226 and was canonized two years later as Saint Francis of Assisi.
His attitude and teachings still reverberate today, both in the Catholic Church and in the popular imagination.
Since then, the whole world has said masses, baptized cities and built temples in his honour.
Brazil is no different. But among the many churches dedicated to the saint, there are some that stand out and bear witness to historical times.
They represent faith, but also illustrate the country’s history through art.