The relief sculpture contained within a roundel at the center of the façade of the church of São Francisco de Assis in Ouro Preto, Brazil, shows St. Francis receiving the stigmata as Jesus Christ appears in the clouds above. As if propelled by the force of this miraculous event, the architecture around this scene bursts outward.
The façade is filled with an elaborate arrangement of ornament. The entablature curves around the roundel, pushing into the broken pediment. The corners of the pediment (that appear like two sides of a triangle above the columns) are sharply broken and twisted outward.
To further emphasize the forward projection of the façade, the architect has pushed back the lateral towers, and placed their pilasters and windows to make them appear as if they are angled away from the façade. This dynamic manipulation of forms creates the impression that the structure is expanding from within.
Church design in the early modern Portuguese empire generally favored simple plans and exteriors—a sharp contrast with the church of São Francisco, with its curving geometries and lively ornamentation. How did this structure, located in a remote mining town deep in the inland hills of Brazil, come to represent such an innovative approach to design?
“Rich Town of Black Gold”
Although the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 intended to give Spain sovereignty over the Americas, it enabled the Portuguese to claim the easternmost portion of South America in 1500.
The Portuguese initially established settlements along the coast of Brazil to enable natural resources such as brazilwood (from which the colony received its name) and sugar to be shipped back to Portugal. In the 1690s, however, gold—and later, diamonds—were discovered in an inland region of Brazil, subsequently named Minas Gerais (“General Mines”). Minas Gerais was unique within Brazil not only because of its remote location, but also because of the legal restrictions imposed upon the area: in order to protect their mining interests, the Portuguese government banned foreigners from the area, and manufacturing and non-essential agriculture were forbidden.
The church of São Francisco is located in the heart of this gold mining region, in the bustling commercial center of Ouro Preto. The town was originally named Vila Rica de Ouro Preto, meaning “Rich Town of Black Gold” (so named because the gold deposits contained iron ore, making them appear dark in color). Although it is traditionally considered geographically and culturally isolated, many goods, including artists’ materials and tools, were transported across the hilly landscape to Ouro Preto, and the local wealth attracted artists and architects from Portugal.
Remote yet cosmopolitan
Brazil’s gold mining region is famed for church architecture that was unique within the Portuguese empire, and the church of São Francisco is a prime example of this. The Portuguese and Brazilian artists and architects who worked on the church of São Francisco were well-versed in contemporary artistic trends from Europe. Whereas other churches in Brazil at the time tended to reflect the rectangular plans and restrained exterior ornamentation of contemporary churches in Portugal, the dynamic architecture of the church of São Francisco is reminiscent of Italian and central European, rather than Portuguese, church design. For example, the projecting central portion of the façade and broken pediment recall the church of San Domenico in Noto, Sicily.
The greatest artist of colonial Brazil
In addition to the ban on foreigners, religious orders were prohibited in Brazil’s mining region. Therefore, instead of belonging to the Franciscan monastic order, the church of São Francisco de Assis belonged to a confraternity, a group of local laypeople who joined together in their devotion to Saint Francis. The confraternity members funded the project, hired artists and architects, and oversaw the design.
Although the confraternity of São Francisco only admitted white members, enslaved Africans constructed the building, and the design has been attributed to the sculptor Antonio Francisco Lisboa: the son of the Portuguese architect Manoel Francisco Lisboa and an enslaved black woman named Isabel. Antonio Francisco Lisboa is better known by the nickname Aleijadinho (sometimes written “O Aleijadinho”), meaning “The Little Cripple,” because he reportedly suffered from a chronic disease that left him disfigured. He is considered the greatest artist of colonial Brazil, and the church of São Francisco is among the reasons why.
While the external ornament on the more typical, conservative Portuguese churches was largely relegated to carvings on the door and window frames, the façade of São Francisco contains abundant sculptural ornament. The traditional oculus is replaced by the roundel relief of St. Francis, and the sculpture surrounding the doorway spreads upward, covering the center of the façade with rocailles, cherubs, and a depiction of the Virgin Mary.
Innovation in design
Along with the projecting façade, the diagonally placed altars in the corners of the nave transform the traditional rectangular plan seen in most contemporary Portuguese churches into an elongated octagon. The interior of the church is composed of a single unified space crowned by an exuberant ceiling painting of the Virgin Mary rising to heaven, executed by the Brazilian painter Manoel da Costa Ataíde.
The octagonal plan and the treatment of the interior decoration as a cohesive whole echoes trends in Italian and central European church design, where elaborate ornamentation combined with architecture and sculpture to create diaphanous spaces meant to evoke a heavenly experience.
Although Lisboa definitely designed and carved much of the decorative ornament, the extent of his contribution to the architectural design remains unclear. The project was officially overseen by two Portuguese designers (the mason Domingos Moreira de Oliveira and the sculptor José Antonio de Brito). However, Lisboa was paid to inspect the finished structure, an honor usually reserved for a project’s architect. Some scholars believe that he designed the church, but that discriminatory laws against people of African descent prevented him from being formally recognized as the architect.
The members of the confraternity of St. Francis hired the region’s best artists to create an original and daring design that competed with other churches in the area. Prominently positioned at the center of town, the church of São Francisco proclaims the confraternity’s—and the region’s—wealth, taste, and religious devotion.
Gauvin Alexander Bailey, The Spiritual Rococo: Decor and Divinity from the Salons of Paris to the Missions of Patagonia (London: Taylor and Francis, 2017).
Tim Benton, and Nicola Durbridge, “’O Aleijadinho’: Sculptor and Architect,” in Catherine King, ed., Views of Difference: Different Views of Art (New Haven: 1999), pp. 146-177.
John B. Bury, “The “Borrominesque” Churches of Colonial Brazil,” The Art Bulletin 37, no. 1 (1955), pp. 27-53.
Robert C. Smith Jr., “The Colonial Architecture of Minas Gerais in Brazil,” The Art Bulletin 21, no. 2 (1939), pp. 110-159.