Ruins of S. Paulo

A church on the site was first built in 1580 but was burnt in 1595 and 1601. Reconstruction started in 1602 and completed in 1637. It was 37 metres long, 20 metres wide, 11 metres high – the largest church in East Asia. It had a grand vaulted roof and three magnificently decorated halls. The interior was elaborately decorated with paintings, ivory, lacquer, gold and silks, but the walls were made of chunambuco, a mixture of shells, stones and clay.

In the 16th century, the Jesuits made about 200,000 converts in Japan, so many that it threatened the Tokugawa hegemony. In the persecution that followed, tens of thousands took refuge in Macau. Many were employed, together with local craftsmen, in building and decorating the church, under the direction of Italian Jesuit Carlo Spinola.

The church was destroyed in a fire in 1835, together with the Jesuit library and part of the 16th century Monte Fort. The granite Baroque facade and steps are all that remain.

On the facade, there are conventional religious symbols, like the metal cross on the pinnacle, a finely carved dove below. Look at the sun and moon on each side - especially the sun, which has a happy face. On the second tier down, there's a fairly typical Iberian Infant Jesus, dressed in robes, but at his side are the implements used as he was tortured on the way to the cross : a whip, a crown of thorns, nails, a ladder. This would have been specially poignant, for many of the Japanese martyrs were killed by being crucified, like their God. Unlike Christians in Europe, these Japanese craftsmen probably had first hand knowledge.

The next tier shows a large bronze Virgin Mary, surrounded by six angels - these angels being the symbol of Macau. Yet on one side there's an exotic palm tree and on the other a baroque fountain. Beside the fountain is a carving of a Portuguese ship, without which there would have been no Descobrimento, no adventures to the East and to the new world. Next to it is another dragon, more serpent-like and Japanese-looking. There's an inscription carved in Chinese (not kanji) identifying it as the Devil vanquished.

On the right side of the Virgin Mary, there's a strange dragon with seven heads and two legs. It's neither Japanese or Chinese - did the idea come from India, or from books? On the monster's head is a small image of the Virgin Mary, so the inscription reads "The Virgin Mary tramples on the dragon's head". Beside this dragon, there's a skeleton, beautifully carved and leering madly, a macabre but pertinent memento mori. "Remember death and do not sin".

The facade faces west, towards the sea and towards Rome. But due west of Macau is the island of Sanxian, where St Francis Xavier passed away, dreaming of China. He wasn't a saint yet, but was so revered that barely 50 years after his death he was commemorated in one of the bronze statues on the lowest level overlooking where the ornate doors stood, as if he were welcoming those who came to pray.

In 2005, the Ruins of St. Paul were officially enlisted as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Historic Centre of Macau.


Edited extract of a blog posted on by Doundou Tchil