History and Architecture of the Igrejinha da Pampulha MG

The Curial Chapel of São Francisco de Assis has various names, such as the Igreja São Francisco de Assis of Belo Horizonte or Igrejinha da Pampulha, in Belo Horizonte, as it is popularly known.

History and Architecture of Igrejinha da Pampulha or Igreja São Francisco de Assis de Belo Horizonte MG

Its completion dates back to 1943, but even so, its prominence in the history of architecture, art and faith is extremely relevant.

In 1945, the São Francisco de Assis Chapel, better known as Igrejinha da Pampulha, was practically finished, but it didn’t get the authorization from the Metropolitan Curia to be consecrated and function as a religious temple.

The religious authorities of the time questioned the Pampulha Church and considered that the temple dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi was inappropriate for religious practices.

Meanwhile, after only two years of existence, the church and its works were inscribed in the Fine Arts Book of the National Artistic Heritage Service – an unprecedented fact.

Recognition as a religious space only came 15 years later, in 1959. Juscelino Kubitscheck was then president of Brazil.

Igrejinha da Pampulha
Igrejinha da Pampulha – Curves and oblique lines are all over the church – externally and internally – an elegant asymmetry that reveals the architect’s creative freedom – architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Igreja da Pampulha is a national reference work for Modernism.
Igreja da Pampulha is a national reference work for Modernism

The reason for the ban is unclear.

Some say that the shape of the building went against the church’s traditions.

Others claim that Portinari’s paintings of the Way of the Cross, frescoes and tiles were not in keeping with the Catholic tradition of representing the saints, as in the response given by the then archbishop, Dom Antônio dos Santos Cabral.

Both the supporters of modernism and the defenders of ancient art, of so-called academicism, are right, because everyone is fighting for artistic evolution.

But as a temple, it doesn’t look good; we can’t distort the Lord’s work, nor is the church a place for materialistic, albeit artistic, experiments.

História e Arquitetura da Igrejinha da Pampulha

There was a conservative reaction that criticized the whole complex: the gambling in the casino, the bathing suits in public by the lagoon and the balls promoted by Kubitschek. But the main target was the church.

Niemeyer and Portinari’s links to the Communist Party were also questioned. Newspapers said that, reflected in the lagoon, the church had the shape of the sickle and hammer of the Soviet flag.

Fortunately, times have changed.

Today, the priest responsible for the Pampulha Church reinforces not only the beauty of Portinari and Niemeyer’s work, but also its historical importance. “The richness of the artist exposes his era,” he says;

Masses on Sundays have been re-established. Weddings and baptisms are gradually returning.

Igrejinha da Pampulha - Detail of the altar in the purest modernist art
Igrejinha da Pampulha – Detail of the altar in the purest modernist art

In October, the priest also organizes the Art for Faith Circuit, in honour of the saint, with celebrations, exhibitions, cultural presentations and even animal blessings. “It’s a way of combining the architectural, cultural and tourist value with the spirituality and faith of the church.”

Visitors to the Igrejinha da Pampulha are mixed between the faithful and tourists. Some stop for a prayer, others don’t even realize it’s a religious temple.

The Little Church of Pampulha was designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer, was considered a great architectural innovation and was commissioned at the time by Juscelino Kubitschek, who was mayor of Belo Horizonte at the time.

Always ahead of his time, the Brazilian architect used his trademark and created a modern building using the volatile aspect of concrete.

For many years, the church was criticized by religious people for its unorthodox shape. However, today it is visited and considered a real gem in the heart of Minas Gerais.

Inside, the Igrejinha da Pampulha houses the Way of the Cross, composed of fourteen panels by Cândido Portinari.

Candido Portinari was an important Brazilian artist of the modernist phase. Recognized worldwide, he received several awards and took part in numerous exhibitions. As well as painting, Portinari also dedicated himself to illustration, engraving and teaching.

The gardens were designed by Burle Marx and the bronze bas-reliefs were sculpted by Alfredo Ceschiatti.

Roberto Burle Marx was undoubtedly one of the greatest landscapers who ever lived, internationally recognized.

Alfredo Ceschiatti carried out the first project in collaboration with Oscar Niemeyer in 1944, the bas-relief of the baptistery of the Church of São Francisco de Assis, Pampulha, in Belo Horizonte. 

In addition to being one of the most representative images of the religiosity of the people of Minas Gerais, the Igrejinha da Pampulha is also one of Belo Horizonte’s best-known “postcards”, a masterpiece of the Pampulha Architectural Complex,  which has been awarded the title of Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Igrejinha da Pampulha - Detail of modern art signed by Cândido Portinari
Igrejinha da Pampulha – Detail of modern art signed by Cândido Portinari

In October 2021, the chapel was elevated to the title of Archdiocesan Sanctuary of Saint Francis of Assisi.

The church does not have a structure with concrete slabs resting on pillars, as you would expect from religious architecture. Curves and oblique lines are everywhere in the church – externally and internally – an elegant asymmetry that reveals the architect’s creative freedom.

There are no structural beams or pillars. There are arches and vaults made of reinforced concrete, which reveal large spans.

A structure previously only used in engineering works, such as the airplane hangar at Orly airport in Paris. The two largest are the ceiling of the nave and the altar. At the back, the smaller ones serve as supports.

In contrast, the bell tower and the entrance marquee appear as rectilinear, independent but interconnected elements. The waves multiply in curved panels by the artist Paulo Werneck on the exterior walls – made with tiles in shades of blue and white.

Igrejinha da Pampulha - Detail of modern art.
Igrejinha da Pampulha – Detail of modern art
Igrejinha da Pampulha - The waves multiply in curved panels by artist Paulo Werneck on the external walls - made with tiles in shades of blue and white
Igrejinha da Pampulha – The waves multiply in curved panels by artist Paulo Werneck on the external walls – made with tiles in shades of blue and white
The mosaic cladding on the external walls of the Igrejinha da Pampulha, which have been given a modernist design, typical of the time, signed by the panelist Paulo Werneck, an established artist who, from the 1940s onwards, produced and disseminated mosaic works of great artistic refinement throughout Brazil. 
Igrejinha da Pampulho - Panoramic view of the modernist interior of the little church of São Francisco de Assis
Igrejinha da Pampulho – Panoramic view of the modernist interior of the little church of São Francisco de Assis in Belo Horizonte.

The back wall, facing the street, is occupied by a mural of Saint Francis painted by Cândido Portinari in tiles, in a white and blue composition.

The project is completed by Burle Marx’s landscaping – curved and full of vents – “The garden is nature organized by man and for man,” said the landscaper.

Cândido Portinari also created the white and blue composition of tiles that occupies the lower sides of the chapel in which fish swim and birds fly.

The tiles are also present in the curved pulpit.

The eye turns to the Via Sacra – from the Latin Via Crucis, ‘way of the cross’ – by the same artist, made up of 14 panels.

Experts consider it to be one of his most significant works. The work is also a rich example of a classic theme translated into modernity, which the artist did like few others.

Also present in the baptistery are the bas-reliefs by Alfredo Ceschiatti depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise on large bronze panels. A true selection of modernist culture in Brazil.

Despite Modernism, the Pampulha Church maintains the traditional program of religious temples. The altar, choir, pulpit, sacristy and bell tower;

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