Church and Convent of the First Order of Saint Francis

Church and Convent of the First Order of Saint Francis

Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Religious Architecture

This magnificent architectural group of buildings embodies crucial aspects for the formation of the mentality and identity of Salvador residents: Its physical structure is also representative of different eras. Originally located within the city walls, the main façade of the church faces an elongated forecourt, where the cross stands, an important element in the Franciscan liturgy used to demarcate an urban area that is considered sacred. The initial building was structurally poor, a characteristic of the early stages of the Franciscan order that can be observed in the first buildings they constructed in Salvador between the 16th and 17th centuries. However, the buildings of the complex became richer as they were replaced over the years with others more in keeping with later periods, the decorative richness of which belies the austerity preached by the Church during the initial period of the Counter-Reformation. The foundation stone of the existing convent was laid on 20th December, 1686, the feast day of Santo António de Argoim. Work began immediately with the construction of the block of corridors. The Records of the Guardians of the Convent record that construction had already been completed in 1707. This included the whole structure and some finishing work, such as the ceilings and tiles of the infirmary and the chapter house. Despite the austerity stipulated by Franciscan mores, the use of luxury and decorative richness was based on the idea that, for the areas designed for religious worship, any amount of refinement and opulence was insufficient. The cloister, the symbol of convent life, was a place for community gatherings and meditation, serving as a kind of continuation of the church; liturgical activities also took place there, specifically interior processions, and for that reason it was one of the areas where the finishing of the structure was most refined. Construction of the cloister began in 1707, but it was not entirely completed until 1748 when tile panels covering all the walls were put in place. The church of the Franciscan convent of Salvador is considered one of the most opulent and luxurious in Brazil. Construction was launched with a great celebration in 1708 and within five years it was already sufficiently complete for mass to be held there. However, the complete structure of the new church, with its frontispiece, was not completed until 1723. It has a single nave, short in relation to its width, with intercommunicating side chapels, which distinguish it from the other Franciscan buildings in north-eastern Brazil. Work on the interior wood carvings, although possibly based on a single design, continued at least until the mid-18th century. The final result is a clear example of Portuguese baroque, in which the ornament is an intrinsic part of the structure, rather than being an element that could be added or not as desired. In this case, the architecture simultaneously performs the role of both structure and decoration. The frontispiece also differs from other Franciscan buildings in north-eastern Brazil in having two towers and no galilee. Instead of a galilee, the central door is flanked by two smaller doors shaped like triumphal arches. The vertical division of the façade into five sections is a feature that is also to be found in the Church of the Jesuit College of Salvador, now the Basilica Cathedral. This division results in a more dynamic and baroque composition in which the volutes forming the pediment are prominent. The image of Saint Francis, sculpted in white marble – and now covered in layers of paint – was placed in the niche of the façade, beneath the coat of arms of the Franciscan Order, at the end of the first half of the 18th century. The smooth tiles covering the towers are also from a later period and serve further to accentuate the main body of the façade, which is made of dark sandstone.

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