São Paulo’s treasure trove of sacred art

At first sight, Brazilian sacred art objects of the colonial era look like they’d never left the Old World. These angels and saints are usually rendered in corpulent frames, serpentine postures of slithering bodies, with an uncanny realism of human skin tone and decked out in the ornate fashions of the Portuguese nobility. They stare back at modern viewers with the same Baroque extravagance that is present in Portugal to sway the pagan souls of native Brazilians with visions of Christian mystery.

The Iberian culture transferred to the Americas with the conquistadors was one in which the decorative arts were deeply intertwined with Roman Catholicism. In colonial-era Brazil as much as in the rest of Spanish-speaking Latin America, the Catholic Church not only exerted political power over the lives of the European and indigenous peoples but also, through its patronage, influenced the visual arts in the New World. The Catholic religion instruction worked mainly through image.

In time, this image changed, transformed by the sensibilities of native artists and a shrewd campaign of the Catholic Church which recognised the power of nativised art in creating a new Brazilian identity. Luso-Brazilian sacred art objects are thus the product of cultural syncretism and miscegenation where the European and the indigenous are combined. Derived from the naturalism of Baroque sculpture, their facial features reveal an adaptation of native physiognomy.

Throughout Brazil’s colonial period, churches and private homes teemed with this new sculptural genre, which not only blended the Portuguese Baroque with native influences but also embraced traditional Christian imagery in previously unimagined ways. One of the best public spaces dedicated to the collection and display of rare Luso-Brazilian sacred art is the Museum of Sacred Art of São Paulo, located in the historic Luz Monastery founded in 1774 and preserved to absolute perfection.