Church of Saint Francis of Assisi

Church of Saint Francis of Assisi

São João del-Rei, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Religious Architecture

The brethren of the Third Order of Saint Francis of Assisi obtained permission for the construction of a chapel in 1741. The following year they petitioned the town hall for a concession of lands for the estate of the religious building that they had started building in wood and rammed earth. The land, the donation of which was not made official until one decade later, was quite large, even “rivalling the old church of Our Lady of Pilar”, which enabled the Order to lay out a large forecourt. Part of this forecourt was later restored to the municipality, which gave it its present-day appearance, with gardens and an avenue of palm trees. The proposal for the construction of a new church, this time in stone “since so much money had been spent on this one and always on the parts that were at risk of collapsing”, was approved in 1772. The contract for the quarrying and the cutting of the stone was awarded the following year; the Administrative Board wrote a term of acceptance of the design “that had been ordered from Vila Rica” (Ouro Preto) in 1774, without mentioning its author. Later documents, however, attribute it to O Aleijadinho, whose participation in the making of several features of the church has already been proven. The implementation of the design was entrusted to the talented Francisco de Lima Cerqueira, a native of Braga, whom the Order had brought from Vila Rica to “be the master and administrator of the works of the new chapel and to cut the stone to be used in the masonry below the roof”. The beautiful quill drawing that has reached us was not entirely followed: as often happened during the construction works, the master builder made several modifications to the original layout, always with the approval of the members of the brotherhood. Such alterations, incidentally, have been heavily criticised in Brazilian historiography, which, influenced by the nationalism of the early decades of the 20th century, tended to focus on “mulatto” artists and craftsmen (like O Aleijadinho) ignoring or overlooking the decisive collaboration provided by Portuguese builders. The design of the circular towers with small balconies at the top, the gracious shape of the oculi and side windows, the floor plan of the building (with its elliptical and sinuous nave, elongated chancel and side sacristy) and the new design of the portal, planned and constructed in collaboration with O Aleijadinho, were some of the modifications that derived from the ingenuity, sensitivity and skill of Lima Cerqueira. Several features in the chancel date from 1781-1784: the altarpiece constructed by the wood carver Luís Pinheiro, the ceiling, the dome, the “trimmings” and other ornamentation. Francisco de Lima Cerqueira died in 1808 and a local disciple, Aniceto de Souza Lopes, was hired to replace him; he supervised the remaining work (the pediment, the arch of the choir, etc.). The construction of the last altar was finished in 1837; the pillars and the stone balustrade enclosing the forecourt were only finished in 1885.

Cláudia Damasceno Fonseca