Church of Saint Joseph of the Exile
São Luís, Maranhão, Brazil
Situated near the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy and usually classified as belonging “to the Byzantine style”, this church is the most enigmatic in São Luís. Its pentagonal floor plan differentiates it from the other churches built in the city, consisting of an adaptation of the Greek cross floor plan, with a nave, chancel and clearly separated side chapels. Nothing is known about its foundation, although it is considered to be the oldest in the city. It existed before 1641, and in 1648 the Brotherhood of the Exile refused to allow the building of the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy on the site of the church. After collapsing in 1832, it was rebuilt at the expense of private donations, starting with one from a poor black man called José Lé, who gave the church its name of Saint Joseph. It was finished in 1839 and opened for worship in 1865, after the architect João dos Santos had restored the quadrangular turret which stood before the crossing arch and the ridgepiece and tower in 1867, financed by donations made by well-to-do ladies from Maranhão. The façade has a door flanked by two empty niches and an upper floor with five large windows surmounted by alternately curved and straight pediments and a unique high pediment with three ogives with volutes, behind which there appears an imitation cupola carved into segments. As strange as it may seem, the closest example that we can find for comparison are the churches with an imitation cupola in the vicinity of Goa in India (Saint Alexis in Calangute, 1741; Saint Stephen in Jua, 1759; Saint Cajetan in Assagão, 1775; Our Lady of Conception in Moirá, and Saint Anne in Bodiem). Almost all of them are Franciscan and have a two- dimensional, cupola-shaped pediment that, when seen from the front, looks like a three-dimensional cupola crowning the frontispiece, an optical illusion created by the effects of perspective. Besides dating from a later period, how can we explain the migration of an idea and a style solely from Goa to São Luís? The Church of Saint Joseph of the Exile still has a great deal to teach us.