Secrets of St Paul's: the story behind Macau's most famous landmark

As João Botas discovers, there’s more to the façade of Macau's famous landmark than meets the eye

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 4:56pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 5:02pm

Against all odds – whether war, wind or the passage of centuries – the Ruins of St Paul’s have stood as a unique reminder of Macau’s roots.

Most tourists who visit the façade probably see only the remains of an old church. But there’s more to its story.

In the mid-16th century, a group of priests from the Company of Jesus travelled to the Far East to spread Catholicism. In Macau, they built a church, a college, a residence, a library with thousands of books, and a farm with fruit trees and five wells, all surrounded by a wall with a few doors. One door remains from those days, near Na Tcha, a Chinese temple built in 1898.

Located at the top of a hill, the structure originally known as Mater Dei was the largest church in Asia at the time. Its existence was meant to express the triumph of the Roman Catholic Church through the splendour of the buildings.

The original structure was made of wood, which burned down in a fire in 1835, leaving only the granite façade and 68 stone steps. In 1904, a group of Catholics and civilians started a charity programme to rebuild the church, but it never came to pass. The remains of the walls were demolished in the early 1930s for use in the first Praia Grande landfills.

Most historians believe the church was designed by an Italian Jesuit named Carlo Spínola (1564-1622), but there is no record of the original plans.

There are some elements of the façade that resemble those in several late 16th-century churches built in Europe and Portuguese India – Chiesa del Gesú in Rome and Sé Cathedral in Goa, respectively – and also bear similarities with a sketch made by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci.

But the church’s design is one of a kind – a mix of East and West, like Macau itself. Chinese and Japanese artisans and craftsmen were involved in the decoration of the façade, which was built by Japanese Christians who were fleeing persecution at home.

The façade is divided into five levels, starting with a dove at the top that symbolises the Holy Spirit. Other sculptured motifs include biblical images, Chinese characters, six Chinese lions, mythological representations, several nautical motifs and bronze statues. Beneath the dove is a statue of Jesus, and around it are stone carvings of the implements of the crucifixion.

On the third tier stands the Virgin Mary alongside angels, surrounded by peonies that represent China and chrysanthemums that represent Japan. To the right of the Virgin Mary is a carving of the tree of life and a woman slaying a seven-headed hydra. The second tier has statues of four Jesuit doctors, including St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the order.

There were once several tunnels in Macau, including one in Pátio da Mina that was believed to connect the inner harbour to St Paul’s College close to the church.

A priest named Sarmento wrote that he observed the tunnel in 1941, and that it was used by Jesuit priests to escape from attacks. Others believe it hid treasures.

The tunnel may be sealed now, but its presence and that of the craftsmen who built Mater Dei can still be felt at the ruins of St Paul’s.