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The sacred Brazilian soul

Book reveals the archeology of the churches of the state of São Paulo

MANOEL NUNES DA SILVA/ IGREJAS PAULISTAS: BARROCO E ROCOCÓSaint Magdalene (18th century), in Itu. The Our Lady of Sorrows Retable in the nave of Campinas CathedralMANOEL NUNES DA SILVA/ IGREJAS PAULISTAS: BARROCO E ROCOCÓ

There are many ways of telling the same story. It is possible, for example, to learn about the São Paulo of the colonial period lingering over the churches erected in those days. Actually, it is not even necessary to carry out a painstaking analysis of these places of worship. A detail snipped from each one of them can unveil a series of precious information. In the book Igrejas Paulistas: Barroco e Rococó [Churches of São Paulo: Baroque and Rococo] (Editora Unesp/Official Press SP), the author, Percival Tirapeli, a qualified professor of Brazilian Art and Painting on the campus of the São Paulo Arts Institute of the São Paulo State University (Unesp) chose churches, paintings, sculptures and retables, the latter popularly known as altars. Tirapeli’s intention was more explicit: this specialist in sacred art and plastic artist set out to analyze the most important work of each church that he visited in the state 69, from 37 different cities. This would outline a panorama of the morphology of ornamentation, through the lens of archeology.

“My book is not a history of the churches”, the author warns. The objective is to portray the archeological side, the genesis of the sacred art preserved in São Paulo. Were the unprecedented survey carried out by Tirapeli not to suffice, now at the end of his work, the researcher came across a treasure, which may be the oldest work in carving of Brazilian art (photos of it illustrate these pages). The wooden object is said to have been part of the second cathedral in São Vicente (the first was destroyed by an earthquake), dedicated to Our Lady of the Conception, dating from 1559, on the coast of São Paulo. Up until now, this claim was made of the altars of the Holy Martyrs, preserved in the Cathedral of Salvador.

The author opted for pursuing two previously outlined paths to draw up his book. The first, from his research dissertation, Religious Construction in the Urban Context of the Paraíba Valley, State of São Paulo, defended at USP in 1984. The second inspiration came from Mário de Andrade, who carried out the first photographic survey of the churches of São Paulo, together with Germano Graeser, in 1937, at the time of the creation of the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Service (Sphan).

In Churches of São Paulo: Baroque and Rococo, Percival Tirapeli decided to organize the work in the same way as Mário de Andrade. Accordingly, 69 churches are organized by ways, the coastal way, the way to the gold mines, the Jesuit ways, the environs of São Paulo, the ways to the South, to the Paraíba Valley and to the Tietê Valley and in 474 photos, the majority not previously published.

The book started to take shape in December 2001. The author peregrinated over all the towns, after the pre-production by master of arts Maria José Spiteri Tavolaro Passos, to open up the ways and, in particular, following her indications, the doors of the churches for him to immerse himself in the history of the place. As a basis, Tirapeli used consolidated works, such as As Igrejas de São Paulo [The Churches of São Paulo], by Leonardo Arroyo (1954). The Archives of the São Paulo Curia, which has one of the most priceless collections from the colonial period, was also much visited. And, to get to know the peculiarities of each one of them, he availed himself of booklets on each locality and basic texts on the churches.

When he had completed the circuit, the professor called on photographer Manoel Nunes da Silva to record the images. It started all over again. “I covered almost all the 37 towns twice”, says Tirapeli. The intention was to preserve the original atmosphere of these places of worship, sometimes a tough assignment, as they had had their characteristics changed by the action of the faithful, accustomed to give a personal touch to the altars and the images. His first attitude on entering the church was to take the towels and flowers off the altar. “In some places, they were absurdly adorned”, the author tells. In some places, he dared to ask for more than the mere removal of vases of flowers.

In Embu, for example, he requisitioned the sacristan for the pews to be removed, since they did not exist in the colonial period.Obviously, it was often not possible to annul the action of the centuries. Some adornments had already been integrated with the original decoration, to the point of it being impossible to remove them from the place. The case of the plain little red hearts millimetrically arranged along the first row of pews in one church, or the plastic flowers gracefully placed to frame an image on a side altar.

Lighting was also another great concern. Manoel Nunes da Silva resorted only to flash, without any other artifices for lighting. The intention was to let the natural light reign, which, in the case of churches, is more sinuous. The problem is that the assignment of the authors of the book was carried out in the post-blackout period, and many places of worship were infested with white lamps. The alternative was to take the photos with the lights switched off. “We fought to leave fads aside, and to keep the work just as they had been planned and executed by their artists and architects.”

The Catholic calendar was naturally observed. In a year and a half of travels, the pair came across the decoration for the time of Lent, Corpus Christi and Christmas. They were welcomed by the lenses of Manoel Nunes da Silva. “We decided to respect the liturgical coloring of each period.”Another innovation in the book is that it photographs altars complete with their bases. According to the researcher, art books solemnly ignore these altar bases, because it is difficult to fit them in. To achieve such a feat, the pews have to be taken out of the church and everything removed, because these works of art can be up to 8 meters in height. Some of Germano Graeser’s photos have also been printed in the book, to help with recognizing the churches. Pictures by Benedito Calixto and Miguelzinho Dutra as well. Whenever possible, Tirapeli organized the explanation of a church with all the possible angles.

The work having been done, the inevitable questions arise: which is the most beautiful church?And the richest?As a good teacher of the History of Art and plastic artist that he is, Tirapeli avoids all and every comment of this kind. But he does not shirk from lining up a few rankings. For example, the town that has the most churches from the colonial period is Itu (there five in the book). The most complete, or best preserved, is the Church of the Carmelite Third Order, which is on Rangel Pestana Avenue, in the center of São Paulo, closely followed by the Third Order of St. Francis, in the Largo do São Francisco, also in the center of São Paulo; by the Jesuit’s Chapel of St. Michael, in São Miguel Paulista, also in the capital; and by the chapel of St. Anthony’s farm, in São Roque. The most portentous is Campinas Cathedral, all carved in cedar, and done by a sculptor from Bahia in a later colonial period.

A more sagacious reader might conclude that drawing up a ranking of churches in São Paulo could be more difficult, because they are modest compared with the majesty of the traditional examples from Minas or Bahia. Tirapeli refutes these insinuations with vehemence. Firstly, he makes an allusion to the historical value of sacred art in São Paulo, older than that in other regions. Churches started to be erected in São Paulo around 1560, while the ones in Minas Gerais, for example, date from around 1700. But he bows to the evidence as far as esthetics are concerned. “There are no churches here as stunning as those in Minas and Bahia, it’s a more Spartan baroque, but the essence of Portuguese art is present”, he says.

There is an advantage in this bashful beauty: the churches of São Paulo are better preserves than those in other states precisely for not boasting such wealth, so much gold, they were less pillaged.The work of the author of such books as As Mais Belas Igrejas do Brasil [The Most Beautiful Churches of Brazil] (Metalivros, 1999) and Barroco Memória Viva [Baroque Memory Alive] (Editora Unesp/ Official Press, 2001) lasted one year and eight months. A former pupil of the Redemptionist Seminary of Saint Alphonsus, since the age of 14 he has always accompanies the priests to worship the image of Our Lady of Aparecida. Tirapeli knows that each photo in his book tells stories of objects in which sacredness, culture and history have been deposited. Nothing like a sacred piece to portray the Brazilian soul, he wagers.