History and Architecture of the Monastery of St Benedict in Olinda PE

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The Monastery of São Bento (Monastery of St Benedict) is located on top of a hill, in the Historic Site of Olinda, with an exuberant natural landscape surrounding it.

The proximity to the sea and the strategic position in relation to the Portuguese urban design allows the visitor a picturesque perspective (o: landscape worthy of being painted, with pictorial qualities, presented as a sequence of pictures) of the unique landscape of Olinda.

Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE
Monastery of St Benedict in Olinda PE

The houses of Olinda that make up one of the views of the main façade of the church, with the sky and the sea as the backdrops of a painting, make this setting a rare example in north-eastern Brazil.

The newly arrived Benedictines first settled in the Church of St John the Baptist, located in the town of Olinda.

Three years later, they were transferred to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, also in the neighbourhood. However, due to the relative distance from the urban area of the original town, in 1597 the religious acquired the land of Sítio Olaria in the locality known as Varadouro da Galeota, which was later extended with the acquisition of neighbouring land.

That same year, construction work began on the monastery, which was completed two years later, in 1599.

This first monastery was known as the Monastery of the Patriarch St Benedict of Olinda and functioned until the arrival of the Dutch when they set fire to the lands of Olinda in 1631, leaving several religious monuments, including this one, and the houses in a state of complete ruin.

Even so, the Benedictine monks still managed to save the monastery’s precious collection.

Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE

See also the Tourist Spots of Olinda PE

With the withdrawal of the Flemish in 1654, the religious were able to return to their place of worship, and the building was completely rebuilt between 1688 and 1692.

New and more complete reconstruction work was carried out at the Monastery of Saint Benedict over several years in the second half of the 18th century, giving the temple the features we see today.

All its decoration was also redone, similar to what can be seen in the Monastery of Tibães, in Portugal, where the Brazilian Benedictines came from.

Fachada do Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE
Facade of the Monastery of São Bento in Olinda PE

The current frontispiece (façade or front of a building) and bell tower (tower where the bells are located) are the result of this new renovation, in addition to the general expansion of the church’s body, which resulted in the demolition of the sacristy (a room next to the high altar for the storage of liturgical vestments and sacred objects) to make way for the chancel, which was later rebuilt.

The different dates inscribed on the monastery’s temple prove this succession of works: the oculus (circular or oval opening or window in gables or pediments, which provides internal lighting and ventilation) of the doorway bears the date 1761; at the top of the side façade, 1779; and on the side of the sacristy, 1783.

The Monastery of Saint Benedict housed the Olinda School of Law from 1828 onwards, but it only functioned for a short time until 1852, when it was transferred to the former Palace of the Governors, where the City Hall now stands.

The Order of St Benedict was almost extinct in Brazil until the 19th century, when it was re-established by a group of Belgian religious sent to the country by Pope Leo XVIII, especially in 1895.

Altar do Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE
Altar of the Monastery of St Benedict in Olinda PE

Among the religious orders that settled in Brazil, the Benedictine order had the largest number of monks, whose artistic knowledge was equivalent in importance to their religious training.

These monks were responsible for various restoration works in the temple, always respecting its precious heritage.

Most Brazilian Benedictine convents were built in the 17th century, and the classical elements that decorate their façades bring them closer to the Mannerist style.

In particular, dating from the 18th century, the Church of the Monastery of Saint Benedict of Olinda has details on the pediment (triangular upper section in classical buildings, with three parts: the cymatium, the gable and the tympanum) of its façade: the curved cornice (a set of projecting mouldings that serve as the upper trim of architectural works) with volutes (a spiral-shaped ornament) enhances the oculus, which has bronze rays, and suggests a peculiar movement in its composition – a solution that was later followed in other churches in the region.

The stonework details (walls carved and cut according to the technical rules for dividing and cutting materials) in limestone also emphasise a beautiful coat of arms of the congregation in high relief, which adds to the harmony of the façade.

Altar da capela do Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE
Altar of the chapel of the Monastery of São Bento in Olinda PE

The centre door is closed with wooden frames richly decorated with cushions (recessed or protruding rectangles in the frames, which may or may not be decorated), as are the side doors.

Stone mouldings are also part of the composition of the openings, sometimes in straight lintels with arched details, sometimes in curved lintels with curved details. The elegant bell tower can be seen on one side of the façade, while the convent wing with the main door follows the same alignment on the other.

The monument, perched on a hill with its back to the sea, was designed with a generous square, part of which has been fenced off for better preservation and part of which now serves as a car park.

Facing the main façade is the churchyard (an open space in front of the church that can be walled or fenced) with a stone bocel floor (part of the floor that protrudes beyond the plumb line, forming a tooth).

The architectural design shows the existence of a narthex (porch adjacent to the church, covered and delimited by arcades or colonnades) for access to the nave (the interior of churches, from the front door to the high altar), demarcated by stone columns that support the choir (a place above the access door and at the beginning of the nave for choir singing or praying) in wood, with relics depicting scenes from the Way of the Cross on the side walls.

With a single, wide nave, the interior of the church is richly decorated. It has whitewashed painted side walls and side altars in carving (ornate woodwork) and gilding.

Cristo no altar do Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE
Christ on the altar of the Monastery of St Benedict in Olinda PE

[box style=”rounded”]Christ on the altar – Still in the sacristy, there is a sculpture of Christ on the altar. The work, by Friar Agostinho da Piedade, is an example of Brazilian scholarly art. The friar, who was a Benedictine monk, is credited with 30 images of saints. Most of them are in the Museum of Sacred Art at UFBA[/box].

The images on these altars are of Saint Gertrude, Saint Anne the Teacher, Saint Vincent Ferrer and Saint Caetano. Also visible on these walls are pulpits (a raised tribune on one side of the nave from which the priest preaches to the faithful) and tribunes (a kind of balcony from which religious ceremonies are watched).

The entire nave area has a wooden ceiling with vaulted details (the painting highlights the coat of arms of the Benedictine order).

The floor of the entire church is in hydraulic tiles. The transept (a cross-shaped nave that separates the chancel from the naves of the church), at a higher level than the nave, has a stone bocel where a jacaranda wood guardrail has been installed.

Sacristia do Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE
Sacristy of the Monastery of São Bento in Olinda PE

[box style=”rounded”]The sacristy and art – The imposing sacristy is also inaccessible to visitors. It is where priests dress up for mass. The building dates from the 18th century and contains several works of art. The ceiling frescoes retrace biblical passages. The floor and furniture are made of cedar.[/box]

The main crossing arch of the chancel is made of stone and the monks’ choir is located in this area during mass.

The church also has side chapels, especially the one on the right, which is that of Our Lady of the Pillar, with a gilded and polychrome image and an altarpiece (a carved wooden or stone construction on which an altar is leaning, with niches for images or frames for paintings) in richly ornamented and gilded wood carving.

It is closed by an iron grille, with access also from the side aisle.

The choir has a serpentine balustrade in jacaranda wood, a detail that is repeated in the armchair there.

In the centre of the choir is an image of the crucified Christ, surrounded by angels and a rare splendour, restored in keeping with the style of the monument.

Altar dourado do Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE
Golden altar of the Monastery of St Benedict in Olinda PE

Among the internal decoration, the main highlight is the magnificent high altar in cedar wood and entirely gold-plated, whose design is attributed to the Portuguese Benedictine Friar José de Santo Antônio Vilaça, a master from the north of Portugal, but whose execution was done by carvers from Olinda.

It was built between 1783 and 1786 and is one of the most beautiful and significant examples of gilded woodwork in Brazil.

Measuring 13.8 metres high and 7.8 metres wide, its shape features elements of the late Baroque style, in a transition from the Rococo to the Neoclassical style, installed in a deep dressing room (a place reserved for the image of the patron saint on the high altar of churches).

Altar dourado no Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE
Golden altar at the Monastery of St Benedict in Olinda PE

[box style=”rounded”]The golden altar – On the second floor, there is an oratory in the upper choir with a golden altar, chairs and an organ. This room can be seen but not accessed by visitors, as they would have to pass through the cloister. The Portuguese monks prayed in spaces like this[/box].

The existing images are those of Saint Benedict, in the centre, and those of Saint Gregory the Great and Saint Scholastica, on the sides.

In 2001, this same altar was completely dismantled and restored by the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation team and, the following year, it was sent to the Brasil de Corpo e Alma exhibition, held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, becoming the main attraction of the event.

It was later returned to its place of origin. The ceiling of the chancel is vaulted and has a unique wealth of detail.

The tribunes of the chancel and the silver lampshades also stand out.

Corredor do claustro do Mosteiro de São Bento em Olinda PE
Corridor of the cloister of the Monastery of St Benedict in Olinda PE

[box style=”rounded”]The cloister corridor – The tour of areas inaccessible to tourists begins in a cloister corridor where monks who lived there are buried. “We take a vow of stability. We will stay here until death,” says Dom João Cassiano.[/box]

The Church of São Bento has an important artistic heritage, especially in its sacristy, which is considered one of the richest in Pernambuco. Located at the back of the chancel, it has panels on the ceiling and walls depicting scenes from the life of St Benedict.

There is also a 14th-century painting of Saint Sebastian from the Italian school, brought to the monastery at the end of the 19th century, and a large washbasin, carved in polychrome marble and made in Estremoz, Portugal, decorated with images of dolphins. Other important pieces are a gilded altarpiece and a panel depicting Our Lady of Sorrows, as well as rosewood furniture.

The church has a side corridor formed by the bell tower, where there is a shop to raise funds for the conservation of the monument.

A curiosity on the site is an underground tunnel that holds archaeological collections for tourist visits.

The monastery, located to the side of the church, has a cloister (an internal courtyard in convents, uncovered and surrounded by arches) with a central area in quadrangular proportions, porched by full arches.

It has a chapter room, refectory, recreation centre, infirmary, cells and gatehouse, as well as a secular cemetery. In the history of the monument, there are records that in the generous library that it houses, the legal courses of Olinda were developed.

Order of St Benedict or Benedictine Order

Born in Italy in the 6th century, from the beginning it acted as a centre for teaching and the dissemination of knowledge. Next to their monasteries, there was always a school, in addition to housing in their libraries writings inherited from antiquity. The Benedictines lead a monastic life, where the rhythm of life should balance work (body), reading (soul) and prayer (spirit).

Its first members arrived in Brazil in the 1580s and soon founded the first monastery in Salvador. With the consolidation of the monastery in Bahia, around 1586, demands arose for the construction of buildings in other cities of the colony.

New foundations of the same success were repeated in Rio de Janeiro, Olinda, Paraíba and São Paulo. The Benedictines were major land and slave owners in Brazil, acquiring mills, farms and properties in urban areas through reciprocities with other vassals and institutions. The monastery of São Bento in Rio de Janeiro, for example, had the largest fortune in the captaincy at the end of the 18th century.

History of the Benedictine Order in Brazil

The Order of St Benedict was established in Brazil in the 16th century, with the monks coming from the Benedictine Congregation of Portugal.

The first monastery founded was that of São Sebastião, in Bahia, in 1582.

The monasteries of Olinda were founded between 1586 and 1592, Rio de Janeiro in 1590 and São Paulo in 1598.

The Benedictine monasteries in Brazil, constituted as a province of the Portuguese Benedictine Congregation, had their heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries, with many vocations coming from Portugal as well as from the native population.

They also prospered materially, spiritually and intellectually.

The Brazilian monasteries separated from the Portuguese Benedictine Congregation after political independence in 1827 and were erected in the same year by Pope Leo XII into a Congregation of their own, with the name of Benedictine Congregation of Brazil.

The abbeys that comprised it were: São Sebastião in Bahia, São Bento in Olinda, Nossa Senhora do Monserrate in Rio de Janeiro and Nossa Senhora da Assunção in São Paulo (traditionally all are called Monasteries of São Bento).

In Brazil, the 19th century was a century marked by the philosophising of the French Revolution through Freemasonry.

In that century several European countries extinguished religious orders; in Brazil, less radical methods were adopted, forbidding them to receive novices, but the end was the same: the slow death of these institutions.

The number of monks in Brazil gradually diminished, mowed down by death, and the government prevented the entry of new vocations.

The situation was bleak and discouraging, but Divine Providence, which governs the world, had its hour and it came.

In 1889 the monarchical regime fell and the republic was established, which was full of positivism and cared nothing for the Church; Catholicism was no longer regarded as the religion of the State, as in the monarchy, and this gave the Church freedom to organise itself.

The new republican regime rather ignored the Church than helped it. Soon the religious orders began to contact their European houses to restore themselves.

The abbot general of the Benedictines of Brazil and abbot of the Monastery of Bahia, Dom Domingos da Transfiguração Machado, addressed Pope Leo XIII, asking for his interference with the Benedictines of Europe to help restore the monasteries of Brazil.

The Congregation of Beuron accepted the request and sent the monk of Maredsous, Dom Gerardo van Caloen, with a group of priests and convert brothers who arrived at the port of Recife on 17 August 1895.

The group was made up of Germans and Belgians. They were given the Monastery of Olinda, where they settled and began their regular life with the celebration of the Divine Office.

The work of restoring the monasteries in Brazil progressively began, and they began to receive novices.

With the Brazilian vocations and others coming from Europe, the monasteries could be repopulated. From Olinda, the restoration passed to the Monasteries of Bahia, São Paulo, and in 1903, the Monastery of Rio de Janeiro was restored.

Dom Gerardo van Caloen established in Belgium a procuratorate for European vocations for the monasteries of Brazil, founding the Monastery of St Andrew, later elevated to an abbey. He later separated from the Brazilian Congregation to join with others to form the new Belgian Congregation.

Dom Gerardo was vicar general to the abbot general Domingos.

In 1907, with the consent of the Holy See, the abbots of the four abbeys were appointed: Dom Domingos, abbot of Bahia, with Dom Majolo de Cagny as coadjutor; Dom Gerardo, Rio de Janeiro, with Dom Crisóstomo de Saeger as coadjutor; Dom Pedro Roeser, Olinda and Dom Miguel Kruse, São Paulo. The Holy See having given the missions of Rio Branco to the monastery of Rio de Janeiro, this monastery became a territorial abbey and its abbot prelate.

Dom Gerardo was elevated to titular bishop of Focea.

On 1 July 1908, Domingos gave up his soul to God. On the occasion of the appointment of the new abbots, the monastic families were constituted, and the monks henceforth took a vow of stability for each monastery (previously the vow of stability was in the Congregation).

Shortly afterwards the General Chapter met in Rome, when the new Constitutions were drawn up, modelled on the Beuron Constitutions and approved by the Holy See.

The Monastery of Santos, founded in 1625, was created a conventual priory in 1925, and years later moved to Vinhedo, near Campinas. Due to a lack of personnel it was taken over by the Archabbey of St Vincent of the United States, of the American-Cassinese Federation.

In 1940 the Monastery of St Benedict was founded in Garanhuns, Pernambuco, where the cloistered school of the oblates, which had been in a dependency of the monastery in Rio, was transferred. When this school was closed in 1966, the monastery became dependent on the Abbey of Olinda, with the right to its own novitiate since 1980. Since 1986 it has been a conventual priory, i.e. independent.

In the south of Minas, near Itajubá, the Monastery of Santa Maria de Serra Clara was founded in 1956, with its own novitiate and a markedly contemplative life.

In 1957 it was canonically erected as a simple priory, under the jurisdiction of the Abbot President of the Congregation. Transferred to Pouso Alegre in 2006, it changed its name to the Monastery of St Benedict and was erected into a conventual priory in 2007.

This monastery moved in 2013 to Bologna, Italy, taking over the Monastery of St Stephen, which was until then a monastery of Olivetan Benedictine monks. It comprises a complex of churches and buildings of great historical and artistic value (Basilica of Santo Stefano).

This Italian monastery is now a conventual priory of the Brazilian Benedictine Congregation.

The Monastery of Pouso Alegre became a simple priory in 2014, dependent on Bologna. The following year it moved to Frederico Westphalen, in Rio Grande do Sul, but closed in 2017.

The Monastery of the Holy Cross, in Brasilia, was founded by the monastery of Olinda in 1987 as a simple priory, with its own novitiate, and became a conventual priory in 1995.

History and architecture of the Monastery of St Benedict in Olinda, PE

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