Church of Saint Joseph’s Seminary
Macao, Macau, China
he Church of Saint Joseph’s Seminary is the most notable of all the old churches of Macau barring one known as Saint Paul’s. Work on the complex began in 1746 and was basically finished by 1758. It was necessary to level a large area and cut into rock. The walls of the church began to rise on 1 August 1751 and were finished, together with the sacristy, the staircase to the place reserved for the host and the corridor in September of the following year. The main portal and the stairway were initiated in January 1757.
But the origin of the church is prior to this. The priests of the Society of Jesus occupied Saint Joseph’s residence in 1728 and this began to be called seminary in 1732 as it was already carrying out these functions. The decision to erect a new building had already been taken by 1784. The institution was finally transformed into a diocesan seminary in 1856.
The church underwent two major series of works in 1931 and 1953 and while the façade lost a lot of its character in relation to what it was at the end of the 18th century, the interior is untouched – large and with a big dome above the transept.
The façade is one of the most beautiful examples of Portuguese overseas architecture. It is the result of an erudite conception and possesses a flowing movement that is out of the ordinary, with large pilasters that overcome its plainness. It is divided into five sections, the two extreme ones being bell towers, while the central one contains the main portal. The middle storey has three large bay windows, each above a portal. A mixti- linear pediment where the symbol of the Society of Jesus can be seen was built between the two towers on the top storey. The residential areas and the schools, which do not seem to have been the object of great alterations, lie to the right of the church.
The church is laid out in a Greek cross, the ample central space being crowned by a coffered cupola. The axial nave measures 22 metres, the section of the entrance and the apse having the same area, but the chancel and the upper choir make it hard to confirm this. The transversal arms are three metres shorter.
The dome is 13 metres in diameter and rests on pendentives that illuminate the interior, as the first two and the widest rows of the coffers are open, only the central one being closed. It does not have a lantern tower, which was usual in buildings of this type. The ceiling of the four arms is straight sections of barrel vaulting, but the height of the trusses and, consequently, the lateral wall does not allow the arch to be completed and so makes the composition lighter. It is a device that, together with the whole plan, makes us think that it was designed by a first-line Italian architect, as we cannot find anything like this in Portugal at this time. The interior elevations are cut in the middle, thus enabling superimposition of the classical orders, though also interpreted here with great freedom.
The least canonical elements, further away from European aesthetics, are the decorative ones, such as the trusses, the superimposed Ionic and Corinthian capitals, the entablatures and the generality of the frames, which are not very different from what we find in neighbouring churches. The Portuguese or Italian project was probably executed by an excellent master builder who also adapted the directives of the decoration as he had to employ Chinese labour. It is quite possible that a lot of that decoration, especially the stucco, was a result of alterations made in 1903.
The turned columns that support the upper choir were placed there in 1865 and it seems that they came from the rival church of Saint Francis. The retables, which imitate those from the end of the 18th century, are recent works.