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Brazil Beyond Football

Brazil’s 10 most beautiful churches

About the author

Jason Farago is an art critic and columnist who regularly contributes to the Guardian, the New Yorker, and the New Republic. After many years in London, Jason now lives once again in his hometown of New York.

  • São Bento Monastery, Rio de Janeiro

    Catholicism arrived in Brazil along with colonists from Portugal in the early 16th Century. By the end of the 1500s, monks traveling south from Salvador erected this house of worship with an unassuming facade that belies its rich interior. It’s an early example of the exuberance of the Brazilian Baroque, outfitted not just with a gilded altar and painted ceiling but with giant silver chandeliers, each weighing more than three hundred pounds. (Halley Pacheco de Oliveira/Wikipedia)

  • São Bento Monastery, Olinda

    While many of the captaincies founded by Portuguese noblemen went bust in the mid 16th Century, the northeastern region of Pernambuco flourished thanks to a booming trade in sugar cane. In Olinda, one of Brazil’s best-preserved colonial cities, this monastery dedicated to Saint Benedict features a towering gilded altar as well as a divided seating system: the rich sat above on a mezzanine, freemen sat at ground level, and slaves stood outside. In 2001, the altar was imported wholesale to New York, where it stood in the central rotunda of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum as part of the exhibition Brazil: Body and Soul. (Ricardo André Frantz/Wikipedia)

  • São Francisco Church and Convent, Salvador

    Franciscan friars established a convent and church in Salvador, the first capital of colonial Brazil, soon after the Portuguese arrived. Destroyed during wars with the Dutch, São Francisco was rebuilt in the 18th Century with a wildly baroque interior. In addition to the acres of gold, covering everything from ceilings and vaults to the twisting corkscrew columns, the church features imported Portuguese tilework depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. (Ben Tavener/Flickr/Wikipedia)

  • Nossa Senhora do Rosário e São Benedito, Paraty

    The wealth of colonial Brazil, as expressed through its church architecture, was inseparable from the enslavement of native Brazilians and of Africans brought to the New World. In Paraty, an old town to the west of Rio de Janeiro, slaves built the city’s notable Baroque churches but also constructed their own house of worship such as this one, the austere exterior of which gives no hint of the rich polychrome altars inside. (Will Canova/Wikipedia)

  • Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, Salvador

    Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic country, but Christian beliefs have frequently fused with native and African traditions into unique syncretic faiths. Even at Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, the most important Catholic church in the state of Bahia, the congregation’s most important ceremony is a ritual cleaning of the church’s steps that venerates both Jesus Christ and Oxalá, the creator god of the Candomblé faith. (Miquel Girones/Wikipedia)

  • Church of São Francisco de Assis, Ouro Preto

    Rising above the former gold-rush town in the heart of Minas Gerais, this rococo church of the late 18th Century is the masterpiece of O Aleijadinho (‘the little cripple’), one of Brazil’s most fascinating artists. Afflicted by a severe disability, he crafted sculptures and architectural facades with a chisel and hammer secured to his fingerless hands. Above the florid entranceway, Aleijadinho depicts Saint Francis on his knees, receiving the stigmata. (Alvesgaspar/Wikipedia)

  • Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, Congonhas

    Another major site of worship in Minas Gerais, this complex of religious buildings features a major cycle of soapstone sculptures by O Aleijadinho, depicting 12 prophets from the Old Testament in vibrant polychrome. Parishioners reach the church along a zigzagging path that passes by smaller pavilions. (HalleyPo/Wikipedia)

  • Church of São Francisco na Pampulha, Belo Horizonte

    In the 20th Century, churches served as much as government buildings to express the ambitions of modern Brazil. This church by Oscar Niemeyer, the first modern building in Brazil to receive landmark status, echoes the undulating forms of Brazilian Baroque with four parabolic arches, at once soberly functional and unabashedly joyous. (Cid Costa Neto/Wikipedia)

  • Cathedral of Brasília

    For all the power of the government buildings Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa designed in the mid 20th Century, it may be the church at Brasília’s heart that best captures the utopian spirit of Brazil’s purpose-built capital. Its 16 swooping columns, connected by breathtaking glazed windows, seem to burst into the sky, though like many of Brasília’s structures its utopian plans didn’t pan out perfectly: the acoustics are terrible. (Alamy)

  • Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro

    With its unorthodox conical structure (inspired by Mayan pyramids) and long stretches of stained glass, Rio’s severely modern cathedral, designed by Edgar Fonceca, cuts a tough profile in the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It can host as many as 20,000 worshipers at once, but from a distance the cathedral feels surprisingly unimposing – its polygonal facades echoing a bishop’s mitre. (Haakon S. Krohn/Wikipedia)