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The churches of São Francisco

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Terreiro de Jesus has more than its fair share of churches; there are two more fine sixteenth-century examples on the square itself. Outshining them both, however, on nearby Largo do Cruzeiro de São Francisco (an extension of Terreiro de Jesus sometimes known as Praça Anchieta), are the superb, carved stone facades of two ornate Baroque buildings, set in a single, large complex dedicated to St Francis: the Igreja de São Francisco and the Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco. Of the two the latter has the edge: it’s covered with a wild profusion of saints, virgins, angels and abstract patterns. Remarkably, the facade was hidden for 150 years, until in 1936 a painter knocked off a chunk of plaster by mistake and revealed the original frontage, Brazil’s only example of high-relief facade carved in ashlar (square-cut stones). It took nine years of careful chipping before the facade was returned to its original glory, and today the whole church is a strong contender for the most beautiful single building in the city. Its reliquary, or ossuário, is extraordinary; the entire room is redecorated in 1940s Art Deco style, one of the most unusual examples you’re ever likely to come across. From here, there’s a door onto a pleasant garden at the back.

To get into the complex, you have to go via the Igreja de São Francisco (the entrance is by a door to the right of the main doors). The small cloister in this church is decorated with one of the finest single pieces of azulejo (decorative glazed tiling) work in Brazil. Running the entire length of the cloister, a tiled wall tells the story of the marriage of the son of the king of Portugal to an Austrian princess; beginning with the panel to the right of the church entrance, which shows the princess being ferried ashore to the reception committee, it continues with the procession of the happy couple in carriages through Lisbon, passing under a series of commemorative arches set up by the city guilds, whose names you can still just read, including “The Royal Company of Bakers” and “The Worshipful Company of Sweetmakers”. The vigour and realism of the incidental detail in the street scenes is remarkable: beggars and cripples display their wounds, dogs skulk, children play in the gutter; and the panoramic view of Lisbon it displays is an important historical record of how the city looked before the calamitous earthquake of 1755.

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