Brazilian Baroque

N. S. do Rosário dos Pretos and Peterskirche

When I went to do research in Brazil a few years ago, this was my favorite church that I visited. Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (shown right, dates from the latter 18th century) was built in colonial Brazil as a place for the African slaves to worship. One of the reasons I like this church so much is that it is based on an oval floorplan. It seems to me that somehow this church was indirectly influenced by the oval floorplan that was popularized by Borromini in Italy (click here to see the floorplan of Borromini’s church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. This is one of my absolute favorite buildings. I love the undulating facade, the oval floorplan, and the oval dome. It’s so awesome and unique.)

John Bury has also written a little about how this Brazilian church is “Borrominesque,” but he can’t seem to pinpoint any concrete influence.1 So far, I haven’t been able to find a concrete influence for N. S. do Rosário dos Pretos either. One interesting thing I have found, though, is that this church might have been indirectly influenced by the Peterskirke in Vienna.2 Some Portuguese rulers and leaders (i.e. Pedro II, João V, and the Marquis do Pombal) were married to Austrian ladies. Perhaps the Austrian design trickled through Portugal and then down to Brazil.

The Peterskirche in Vienna (shown left, 1733) is a beautiful church that is also based on an oval floorplan. It seems to me that this church is also Borrominesque in design, although I read here that the design was actually based off of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I’m a little skeptical of that information (not only because it’s from Wikipedia, but because it just doesn’t make sense – the floorplan of St. Peter’s Basilica isn’t even oval (and none of the earlier floorplans were oval either)).3 Borromini’s style was copied and emulated internationally, and it seems more likely that he affected the floorplan and design of Peterskirche. (Don’t you think that the lil’ curves in the facade could have been influenced by Borromini?)

Anyhow, I hope that I can do more research and find out the connections between Borromini, the Peterskirche, and N.S. do Rosário dos Pretos. If anyone has leads, suggestion, or information, I’d be happy to hear them.

1 John Bury, “The ‘Borrominesque’ Churches in Colonial Brazil,” (The Art Bulletin 31, no. 1):43- 44.

2 Murillo Marx, “Brazilian Architecture in the XVIII and Early XIX Centuries,” in History of South American Colonial Art and Architecture by Murillo Marx and Damián Bayón, eds., (New York: Rizzoli, 1989), 361. Marx also cites Pal Kelemen, Baroque and Rococo in Latin America (New York: Macmillan, 1951).

3 I do recognize, though, that the Wikipedia article could be referring to some aspect design other than the floorplan. In general, though, I have not observed any other striking similarities between the designs of Peterskirche and St. Peter’s Basilica. If anyone knows specific architectural connections between the two buildings, I would be interested to know them.


Candida Höfer’s Brazil

I first became familiar with the photographer Candida Höfer through her solo exhibition “Architecture of Absence.” Höfer is particularly interested in photographing public interiors at times when they are devoid of people. I think it’s interesting to see a public place when it is public-less. I really like how the space is magnified within the photographs. In a kind of oxymoronish way, Höfer’s work makes absence become a presence.

Anyhow, while I was looking for some images on a Brazilian Baroque church, I stumbled across a few photographs from Höfer’s Brazilian series. The image above, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos Lisboa I (2005), is another Brazilian photograph by Höfer. Since I found out that Höfer is interested in Brazilian architecture and public spaces, she’s a million times cooler to me. (And she was cool already.) Nice.


Catedral Basílica de Salvador

Next time I am in Brazil, I want to go to Salvador and visit the city’s Cathedral Basilica. This cathedral was built between 1657 and 1672; originally, it was part of the Jesuit College in Salvador. All I can say is, those Jesuits sure know how to construct an awesome building.

My two favorite things on the facade are the ginormous volute scrolls between the two bell towers. So awesome! I also love all of the broken (Baroque-en!) pediments that decorate the tops of the windows. The three statues that cover the portals are the saints Ignacio, Francisco de Borja and Francisco Xavier.

The nave ceiling with the Jesuit emblem. I love the gilded, elaborate carvings.

Nave facing the shallow capela-mor and side altars. It is possible that the statue of Christ (above the main altar) is the largest wooden statue in Brazil.

Detail of the ceiling in the capela-mor

You can see a virtual tour of the Salvador cathedral here.

I’m still doing research on this cathedral, particularly to verify a few things. I read online that the interior carvings were performed by slaves, and some of the altarpieces are decorated with Candomblé symbols.1 As of yet, I haven’t found any printed or scholarly material that supports this idea. But it’s interesting and entirely possible; I’ll add something in the comment section of this post if I ever find more information. Maybe I’ll just have to fly down to Brazil and examine the altars myself…

P.S. If you want to research Brazilian architecture, I wouldn’t recommend History of South American Colonial Art and Architecture (Damián Bayón and Murillo Marx, 1989). It is the most confusing, boring, and poorly edited textbook that I’ve come across. Then again, there aren’t too many books available on this subject. Sigh. I’m just going to have to write a new survey textbook one day…

1 Candomblé is a religion-philosophy that is concentrated in Salvador. It has roots in African mysticism but also has been influenced by Catholicism (largely because African slaves were adopted/forced into the Catholic church by their owners). There are many similarities between the African deities and Catholic saints.


Thesis Anniversary

This month marks the one year anniversary of my thesis defense. I think I will always associate Leap Year Day as the day I became a Master of Arts. I can’t believe that a whole year has passed; sometimes I think that I haven’t done enough with my degree.

I really loved working on my thesis. I was lucky to receive a grant which enabled me to travel to Brazil and do research and analysis on-site. My thesis was about an 18th century Brazilian sculptor named Aleijadinho (a nickname which means “The Little Cripple”) who lived during a time of political unrest in Brazil. I argued that Aleijadinho’s sculptures of twelve Old Testament prophets (located at the church Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos) reflect this political unrest because they are positioned in the movements and formations of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. Capoeira is inherently political because it probably developed as a way for African slaves to fight their way off of plantations. Therefore, I interpreted these statues as a type of political propaganda; through the representation of capoeira, I find that these statues exhibit a call for liberation for not only African slaves, but also Brazilian colonists (who were under Portuguese rule at the time).

Chapter one of my thesis discusses the political unrest that occurred in Brazil during the lifetime of Aleijadinho. It also discusses how Aleijadinho may have been associated with the rebel group, the Inconfidência Mineira. This group formed in Aleijadinho’s hometown and tried to overthrow the Portuguese crown. Chapter two deals with the history of capoeira and its political associations. Chapter three contains my analysis of the Prophets – I look at specific capoeira movements and compare them to different statues. I also compare capoeira formations with the formation of and interplay between the Prophets statues. The chapter also contains an analysis of how the signifiers of capoeira (as found on the statues) can be interpreted as political propaganda.

Phew – it was hard to type those last two paragraphs. I guess I haven’t had a lot of practice explaining my thesis lately! If you want to read an abstract of my thesis (it contains more details than what I typed above), click here. Or, if you want to read my thesis (or look at the pictures of the statues!), it has been published online here. It’s quite a lot of reading, though. I won’t be offended if you just want to peruse.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.