History, Construction and Architecture of the Franciscan Convent of Olinda

Although they were present in Brazil since the first Portuguese expeditions, the Franciscans would only settle here in a fixed way several decades later.

In this respect, the Franciscan Convent of Olinda is considered the oldest establishment of the disciples of St Francis in Brazilian lands, the cradle of the order in Brazil.

The first historical document concerning it dates back to the time when the Iberian Union was in force – it is a charter signed by King Philip II of Spain, dated 12 October 1583, granting a donation of land for the construction of the convent.

Franciscan Convent of Olinda
Franciscan Convent of Olinda

Between 1500 and 1584 there was no regular presence of the Franciscan Order in Brazil, only small groups of religious on evangelising missions without the introduction of convents.

It was only in 1584 that the creation of a Franciscan Custody was established at the request of Jorge de Albuquerque Coelho, then governor of Pernambuco, to King Philip II of the Iberian Union.

On 13 March 1584, the petition for the foundation of the Custody of Saint Anthony of Brazil was deliberated, with headquarters in Vila Marim (today Olinda), with Friar Melchior de Santa Catarina as the first Custos.

On 1 January 1585, the ship that brought the friars responsible for the foundation of the Franciscan Custody of Brazil left the port of Lisbon for Pernambuco.

On 12 April 1585, Friar Melchior de Santa Catarina, Friar Francisco de São Boaventura, appointed by patent of the general of the order, Friar Francisco dos Santos, Friar Afonso de Santa Maria, Friar Manuel da Cruz, Friar Antônio da Ilha, priests, Friar Antônio dos Mártires, chorister, and Friar Francisco da Cruz, lay religious, disembarked in Olinda.

Thus began the regular activities of the Order with the construction of the first convent, Nossa Senhora das Neves, in Olinda, and with the work of evangelisation through the missions, as well as with the care of the settlers.

The friars first lived in a house near the church of Misericórdia, where they built an oratory in which they celebrated masses and other religious acts.

Franciscan Convent of Olinda
Franciscan Convent of Olinda


They remained in the house for five months, because Maria da Rosa, a Franciscan tertiary and widow of Pedro Leitão, a wealthy plantation owner, donated to the Franciscan custodian priest, Friar Melchior de Santa Catarina, and his companions, the land she owned, on which she had built a church and an attached house for a women’s retreat.

Once the deed of donation had been signed on 27 September 1585, a few days later, on 4 October of the same year, the religious left the house and headed for the church of Our Lady of the Snows.

The architect Friar Francisco dos Santos provided the risk of the Franciscan Convent in 1585, as well as the outline of the Convent of Paraíba.

Franciscan Convent of Olinda
Franciscan Convent of Olinda

In 1586, the Franciscans began several additions to the convent, which were finalised in June 1590. At the beginning of the 17th century (between 1627 and 1630) new extensions and additions were made.

On 16 February 1630 the Dutch invaded Olinda, but the Franciscans only abandoned the convent after the fire caused by the enemy on 24 November 1631.

With the surrender of the Dutch in 1654, the latter withdrew from the Northeast and, soon afterwards, the Franciscan religious occupied the convent again, taking care of repairs to restore what remained.

See also Sightseeing spots of Olinda PE

Topography, Construction and Architecture of the Franciscan Convent of Olinda

1 Topography

Located on a site with a rugged topography, the Convent of Saint Francis dialogues with the historical landscape of the site, framed by the blue sea and sky. According to records, its initial nucleus was built on a plateau (a portion of land that is flat and easily accessible) to level the ground.

Its churchyard (open space in front of the church, which may be walled or fenced) is generous in size and has a beautiful stone cross (a cross made of stone or wood erected in churchyards). Access is via a slope, bridged by houses from different periods of architecture, but with a beautiful harmony in the context.

The uniqueness of this Franciscan ensemble lies in the way its various blocks were articulated.

2. Construction

The initial construction of this religious complex took place with the arrival of the Franciscan order in Brazil in 1585, with a project by Friar Francisco dos Santos, making it the oldest Franciscan example in the country.

The land donated was a hill with a rugged relief towards the coast – a situation that required landfill and the construction of retaining walls to flatten the area where the complex was to be built.

The first nucleus erected, since the church was built in several stages, was defined by the body of the church and the primitive structures that would define the cloister (internal courtyard in convents), uncovered and surrounded by arches, but still unadorned.

The Dutch invasion of Olinda, which resulted in the burning of the town in 1631, destroyed a large part of the churches and houses and extended to this temple as well.

It was only in 1654, with the expulsion of the Flemish, that work began on rebuilding the church, which continued until the 18th century, when it became one of the most beautiful and noble architectural ensembles of the Franciscan order built in Brazil.

It was during this period that the main façade acquired its current appearance, losing the overhang of the galilee (porch adjoining the church, covered and delimited by arcades or colonnades) in relation to the body of the church and the sobriety of the stylistic details in its upper body, and acquiring the arcades (passage with at least one side with a succession of arches) of the cloister.

A cloister is a part of the religious architecture of monasteries, convents, cathedrals and abbeys. It typically consists of four corridors forming a quadrilateral, usually with a garden in the middle.Cloistered or cloistered life is the common name given to the life of monks, friars or nuns. 
Facade of the Franciscan Convent of Olinda
Facade of the Franciscan Convent of Olinda

The chapel of the Third Order began to be built in 1711, perpendicular to the First Order, this arrangement being typical of the Franciscan School of the Northeast.

It is important to note that St Francis founded three religious orders: in 1209, the First Order, for male religious; in 1212, the Second Order, for female religious; and in 1221, the Third or Secular Order, for people of both sexes who did not follow ecclesiastical life.

The transitional arch from the chapel of the Third Order to the nave (the interior of churches, from the front door to the high altar) of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows was carved with rich woodwork, while the sacristy (a room next to the high altar for the storage of liturgical vestments and sacred objects) was painted in a manner that dates back to the late 18th century.

Around 1715, the chancel was rebuilt, successively receiving decorative elements that illustrate the Baroque influence on the architecture.

The construction of the convent block dates back to the second half of the same century, as an extension of the cloister.

It is notable for the creation of an open terrace facing the sea over the cistern.

After a period of extensions and renovations, the Franciscan temple began a phase of abandonment and decay, especially recorded at the end of the 19th century, associated with the Brazilian Empire’s determination to prohibit the admission of novices to convents.

Franciscan Convent of Olinda - Floor Plan
Franciscan Convent of Olinda – Floor Plan

However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Franciscan order returned to Brazil, continuing the interventions to improve and expand the monument.

In 1945, works were carried out on the roof of the turret, where the library is located, and later, between 1952 and 1956, a new intervention was carried out.

Architectural aspects

The Convent of Our Lady of the Snows was built by the Franciscan Order during the colonial period.

Its implantation on the land occupies only 11.87% of the total area, the rest being occupied by a rich and exuberant tropical vegetation cover.

Franciscan Convent of Olinda - First and Second Floor
Franciscan Convent of Olinda – First and Second Floor

The architectural programme of the Convent, which is part of the First Order, includes the church, with a single nave, chancel, sacristy, choir (a place above the access door and at the beginning of the nave, for choir singing or praying), the cloister, belfry (tower where the bells are located) and the churchyard with the cross.

The Franciscan complex of Olinda consists of three floors, sectorised into the convent area and the Third Order.

For better understanding, it can be said that the ground floor is divided into three areas:

  • the private area for religious, which has services and a library.
  • the area accessible to the public, characterised by the parlour (place where inmates of convents or religious colleges receive visits), auditorium, open terrace, claustrobd, chapel of St. Anne, chapel of the Chapter, sacristyca.
  • The last area corresponds to the ground floor, which is divided into three areas: the private area of the religious, which has services and a library.
  • The last area corresponds to the Third Order, located to the north of the complex, where only free access is allowed to the nave and chapel of St Roque.
Franciscan Convent of Olinda - Cloister and Sacristy
Franciscan Convent of Olinda – Cloister and Sacristy

The upper floor of the Third Order houses the consistory and the presidency.

The conventual block is the private area of the religious. On the first floor there are the priests’ cells, the rooms of the theology course and its administrative support.

On the second floor, some cells, the library and the recreation area are arranged.

Square in shape and built in stages on a robust stone foundation, it still has a cloister, which is the central free area of the convent and considered the main one of the complex, recording Renaissance inspiration, with arcades that follow the Tuscan order, topped by galleries.

The convent is characterised by its stone cornerstones.

The façade of the block facing the Ladeira de São Francisco is marked on the ground floor by oculi (circular or oval openings or windows in gables or pediments that provide internal lighting and ventilation) and on the upper floors by windows with The convent’s construction technique is structural masonry in stone and brick, a typical Portuguese-Brazilian self-supporting feature.

The roof is made of a wooden structure, consisting of scissors and purlins, and channel-type ceramic tiles. The first floor is made up of floorboards on a barrot.

This wooden structure is topped by partition walls in rammed earth or stucco.

In some areas of the cloister, wooden beams rest on sandstone columns.

The floor covering materials vary from handmade terracotta tiles to hydraulic tiles, which add value to the monument.

The façade of the church has a frontispiece (the front of a building) with a refined design, clearly showing the presence of a galilee, an element taken up in Brazil by the Franciscans and Benedictines.

This frontispiece was designed to be subdivided horizontally into three parts: the first comprises the galilee, with colonnades and full arches; the second is demarcated by the choir windows with straight lintels and stone mouldings; and the third part consists of the pediment (triangular top trim in classical buildings, with three parts: the cymatium, the gable and the tympanum) with volutes (spiral-shaped ornament) and a central niche with imagery, topped by a central cross.

It is interesting to note that the volutes give movement to the façade on the upper floors, almost turning them into a single pediment, contrasting with the regularity of the whole.

Franciscan Convent of Olinda - Detail tile of the cloister and detail of the façade
Franciscan Convent of Olinda – Detail tile of the cloister and detail of the façade

The bell tower is unique and is set back from the façade alignment as a typical feature of the Franciscan order, being covered in a dome (vault of revolution, formed by an arch that rotates around an axis).
around an axis).

Crowning the harmonious composition, pinnacles (the highest point of a building) mark the pediment and the bell tower.

Inside the church, the nave is rectangular and the chancel shallow.

The narthex or galilee was demarcated by the wooden choir, which is perfectly set into the monument’s side walls without the support of columns.

The existing side altars date back to the 18th century and the tribunes (a kind of balcony from which religious ceremonies are attended) are richly decorated.

On the side walls of the nave there is an extensive tiled panel depicting religious scenes. The ceiling of the nave has a unique detail in octagonal honeycombs, arranged in a vault (all concave ceiling) – an architectural detail also applied to the ceiling of the chancel.

Franciscan Convent of Olinda - Details of the church interior
Franciscan Convent of Olinda – Details of the church interior

The stone cross arch that marks the chancel is not very elaborate.

The sacristy is located at the back of the monument and has generous proportions. It was designed with two arcades as chapels that protrude from the main body – one of them has a beautiful washbasin in Lioz marble.

The walls of the sacristy are also decorated with an extensive tiled panel, a decorated ceiling and a unique piece of rosewood furniture.

The Chapel of Saint Roque was arranged perpendicular to the convent church as a specific architectural solution for Franciscan convents in the north-east of Brazil. It is richly ornamented and has a wooden ceiling with artesian details.

Franciscan Convent of Olinda - Chapel of the Chapter
Franciscan Convent of Olinda – Chapel of the Chapter

The Chapel of Santanna is the main entrance to the Franciscan complex, with a symmetrical plan and a quadrangular shape. Its internal walls are tiled, possibly remnants of the 18th century, and the ceiling is richly painted.
has rich paintings.

The altar of Saint Anne is reminiscent of the Portuguese Baroque style.

The Chapter Chapel, accessed from the cloister, is small but richly decorated with carvings on the altarpiece (a wood or stone carving on which an altar is built, with niches for images or frames for paintings) and paintings on the ceiling.

There are records that the tiles on the interior walls date back to 1660.

The existing churchyard, of generous proportions, integrates the religious architecture and the historic site, intersected by the Ladeira de São Francisco. Due to a recent architectural intervention, it is situated at a lower level than the rest of the complex.

A beautiful stone cross can be seen on it.

In view of the above, it can be seen that the Franciscan ensemble, in addition to its beautiful architectural composition, has a rich collection of integrated movable property that adds artistic and historical value to the monument.

Panels of Portuguese tiles on the inner walls of the nave depict religious scenes, and the honeycomb ceiling shows a unique stylistic composition.

In addition to its religious use, the Franciscan complex is also used for tourism, festivities and professional purposes. The convent currently houses the theology course of the Franciscan Institute of Theology of Olinda (IFTO), which is taught in three classrooms on the upper floor.

Franciscan Convent of Olinda
Franciscan Convent of Olinda

Sacred art in tiles

Among the varied aesthetic expressions of Franciscan spirituality are the panels of Portuguese tiles – 17th and 18th centuries – that adorn the first building of the Order of Friars Minor – O.F.M. erected in Brazil, in Olinda-PE, built in several stages, since the year 1585, from the already existing Church of Nª Sª. das Neves, passing through the great fire perpetrated by the Dutch in Olinda in 1631, among other events, resulting in the current and harmonious Baroque architectural ensemble integrated by the Chapels – with ceiling linings filled with magnificent paintings of Popes and Franciscan saints, and religious stories – of São Roque, the Chapter, Sant’Ana, and the vast library with many books in the German language, in addition to the stone cross in front of the temple.

See also History of the introduction of Portuguese tiles in Brazil.

Azulejos do Convento Franciscano de Olinda
Azulejos do Convento Franciscano de Olinda


Sixteen large panels of blue and white tiles are arranged on the walls of the convent cloister, alluding to the trajectory – life and death – of Saint Francis of Assisi, constituting a striking example of Pernambuco’s centuries-old devotion to the “Beggar of God”, as referred to by Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy – “A sun was born for the world!”. -The dramatic expressiveness of the panel alluding to the well-known episode that took place in the little chapel of San Damiano, near Assisi, in which the Saint is portrayed kneeling and looking at the crucifix, when he heard Jesus say to him: “Vade Francisce, Repara Domus Meam” (“Go, Francis, and restore My House!”).

Visitors to the beautiful sacristy of the Convent, with its imposing rosewood furniture, will also see, in addition to the iconographic beauty of its ceiling, the tile panel in which the Child Jesus appears to St Anthony, and then the admirable artistic representation of St Francis of the Wounds, on the occasion of receiving the stigmata of Christ through a seraphim gliding over rocks between the Tiber and Arno rivers.

Azulejos do Convento Franciscano de Olinda
Azulejos do Convento Franciscano de Olinda

Among many other examples of Baroque tile art that make up, for example, the sides of the nave of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows, on varied landscapes and biblical scenes, including Latin epigraphs, the Marian-themed ones stand out, as well as the remarkable panel “Circumcision of Jesus Christ”, with a strong realistic tone, with the Child surrounded by several people, seeing St Joseph and the Virgin Mary, the frame surmounted by the caption “Vocatum est nomen ejus Jesus. Luc.2.” (“He was given the name Jesus”).

Numerous tile panels are still profiled on the wall panelling of the Chapel of St Anne, depicting the life of Mary’s mother and the Holy Family.

The Franciscan spirit is revived in the sacred iconography of these tiles, in the paintings and other works of art dedicated to the propagation of the Christian faith, as well as in the persons of the friars and novices of that welcoming environment, selfless religious – “Poverty, Obedience and Chastity” – willing to perpetuate the Franciscan principles based on the Gospel, in favour of building a peaceful, fraternal and charitable society.

History, Construction and Architecture of the Franciscan Convent of Olinda PE

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