by Henry d'AssumpçãoClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (1) to be taken to his personal page

Macau's most famous landmark is the façade of the Church of the Mother of God (Madre de Deus), which is today commonly called São Paulo (St Paul's church)1. It is all that is left of what was once the outstanding baroque structure of Eastern Asia. An earlier church was first constructed on the site in 1580, which was burned in 1595 and destroyed by fire in 1601. Reconstruction of a magnificent new church began in 1602, which was not completed until 1644. It was part of an complex including a college – the first in Western Asia – and a large library that was considered the most valuable in South-East Asia.

S. Paulo 1961
S. Paulo 1961
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S. Paulo was an imposing structure, 37m long, 20m wide and 11m high with an ornate granite façade facing south and a broad flight of 66 granite steps, and would have dominated the landscape of old Macau, and made an impressive sight to all vessels going up the Pearl River to Canton (Guangzhou). It is described in a Jesuit report, written in 1644 on the completion of the church. Read the report

It is said to have been modelled on the Chiesa del Gesù (Church of Jesus), the Mother Church of the Jesuits (but I see only superficial resemblance between their façades).

Originally the church had three large halls built with white stones with a grand vaulted roof. The main altar had four statues of Jesuit saints. Doundou, in an internet blog, states that the walls were of chunambuco (a mixture of shells, stones and clay) and lavishly decorated with paintings, ivory, gold and silver.

The church, college and library were all destroyed by a disastrous fire during a typhoon in 1835, leaving only the granite façade and stone steps.

façade of Chiesa del Gesù, Rome
Façade of the Chiesa del Gesù
Click on image to expand

The artisans who worked on the church were Christian Japanese refugees from Nagasaki who had fled from the religious persecution of the Tokugawa regime2 and local Chinese. Its architect was an Italian Jesuit priest, Fr Carlo Spinola (1564-1622). It seems unlikely, as stated in some articles, that he supervised the construction of the church, because he spent most of his time as a missionary in Japan, operating underground to elude persecution for four years, until he was captured and martyred, 22 years before the church was completed 3. More probably the decorations of the façade were done under the supervision of another Italian Jesuit, Giovanni Nicolao from Nola.

Blessed Carlo Spinola, martyr
Blessed Carlo Spinola
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Dove representing the Holy Spirit Bronze statue of the Infant Jesus Bronze statue of the Virgin Mary being assumed into heaven, surrounded by angels.  She is standing on a moon (originally gilt) (Revelation 12:1 – 'A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon ...', in the Entrance Antiphon of the mass of the Assumption) St Ignatius Loyola the founder of the Jesuit Order St Francis Xavier, the great missionary to Asia Beast Some instruments of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus: whip, hammer,  crown of thorns, spears, pliers Some instruments of the last week of Jesus:  palms, ladder, nails Skeleton with inscription 'Remember death and do not sin' St Francis Borgia St Aloysius Gonzaga Baroque fountain Portuguese ship Sun Tree of Life Moon Seven-headed monster with a small image of the Virgin Mary above one of its heads and the inscription 'The woman crushes the dragon's head'. Reference: 'Then a second sign apeared in the sky, a huge red dragon which had seven heads ... ' Revelation 13:1 and 'I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed.  It will crush your head ... ' Genesis 3:15, words used in the Epistle of the mass of the Assumption Chinese Lion Unidentified Saint Unidentified Saint Dedication of the church to 'Mater Dei' (Mother of God) Chinese Lion

Using the mouse, move the pointer over this image to read more, or click to see more detail about a specific feature.

St Ignatius Loyola
St Francis Xavier
St Francis Xavier
St Francis Borgia
St Francis Borgia
St Aloysius Gonzaga
St Aloysius Gonzaga
Click to see larger image or on a name to see the feature in the façade.

The façade was built in four tiers, decorated with columns4 and arches. At the first (lowest) tier are three doorways. Over the central main doorway is inscribed the name of the church in Latin: Mater Dei (Mother of God). The second tier has niches with statues of four Jesuit saints, separated by the three arched windows of the choir loft: Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, Francis Xavier, the great missionary to Asia, Francis Borgia and Aloysius Gonzaga5.

At the centre of the third tier is a statue of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, with a frieze of chrysanthemums (representing China) and peonies (representing Japan), standing on a large (originally gilt) moon (clearly a reference to the Entrance Antiphon of the Feast of the Assumption: 'A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon ...' Revelation 12:1). She is surrounded by angels with incense and trumpet. On her left are carved bas-reliefs of:

On the right are three carvings:

At the centre of the next tier is a statue of the Child Jesus with a raised right hand and left hand extended (originally holding an cross-topped orb, which is now missing). He is flanked by items from the last few days of the life of Jesus: on the left a whip, crown of thorns, hammer, spears, and on the right a ladder, pliers(?), palms(?) representing his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, nails.

A large dove (originally gilt), representing the Holy Spirit, dominates the top tier. On either side are the sun and moon.

The top two tier include inscriptions in Chinese that are legible from the ground but the calligraphy is of inferior quality.

It is interesting that the bronze statues (and many of the cannons of the fortifications of Macau) were cast in a foundry in the settlement.

At one stage the structure was leaning dangerously and there were calls for the ruins to be demolished but these were fortunately resisted. Archaeological excavations at the site, from 1990 to 1995, uncovered the crypt and foundations that revealed the architectural plans of the building. The ruins were restored by the Government of Macau, with the façade buttressed for protection.

In 2005 the ruins of S. Paulo were listed as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Historic Centre of Macau so they will be protected for posterity.

1     Bosco Correa informed me that the Jesuits formerly always dedicated their houses to St. Paul, and for this were called Paulists . I am grateful to Pinky da Silva for pointing out that S. Paulo actually refers to the entire Jesuit complex, comprising the Church of the Mother of God, the College-Seminary and the large area of land including Monte Fort.
2      The Catholic missions in Japan initially received the support of the Shogunate, because they provided a counterpoint to Buddhist influence and a conduit to Western trade and technology. However, they were so successful, with a huge number of converts – 300,000 according to Dodge) and a million according to Montalto de Jesus – that they were seen as a threat to the stability of the regime. In 1614 Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu outlawed Christianity and persecuted priests and converts. By the 1630s persecution had become intense and many Christians were martyred – some were crucified and some burned at the stake.
Macau had a large community of Japanese refugees who were were mainly responsible for the construction of S. Paulo (Ref. Coates) and 25 of them are buried there. The Dutch fleet leaving Hirado in 1630 took to Macau 287 women and children who were "exiled for being connected to the Portuguese by marriage or birth, who helped swell the Eurasian population of Macao" (Charles R. Boxer Fidalgos in the Far East 1550-1770, p115).
span style="font-size: small">One internet blog mentions "tens of thousands" of Japanese in Macau. Such a large number seems improbable, given the size of the settlement at the time, the limitations in transportation and the likely reaction of the Chinese authorities to so large an influx. Nevertheless, there was undoubtedly a signicant Christian Japanese community in Macau in the 17th century which, one expects, would have contributed to the gene pool of at least some Macanese families. However, early records were sparse and many were accidentally destroyed in church fires.
3     He was confined in a filthy, overcrowded, small cage exposed to the elements with 23 other priests and catecheists for four years and in 1622 was burnt at the stake and died a martyr. He was beatified on July 7, 1867.
4     The first tier has 10 Ionic (Greek) columns, the second tier 10 Corinthian (Greek) and the third and fourth tiers Composite (Roman) columns.
5     Francis Borgia and Luis Gonzaga were not yet been canonised as saints when the façade was built, so on their pedestals they are given the title of Beatus (Blessed).



  1. Cesar Guillen-Nuñez, The Façade of St. Paul's, Macao: A Retable-Façade?
  2. Rogério Miguel Puga, Images and Representations of Japan and Macao in Peter Mundy's Travels (1637), Bulletin of Portuguese/Japanese Studies, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2000.
  3. Ernest S. Dodge Islands and Empires , Europe and the World in the Age of Expansion, Vol. VII
  4. Austin Coates, A Macao Narrative (Hong Kong and London: Heinemann 1978, p37)
  5. Charles R. Boxer, Japanese Christians buried in the Jesuit College church of of Sao Paulo in Macao (Monumenta Nipponica, Vol I 1938, pp265-269), quoted by Gary P. Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan
  6. CA Montalto de Jesus, Historic Macao (Oxford University Press 1984, p97)
  7. Society of Jesus: Saints and Blesseds
  8. Wikipedia: Martyrs of Japan
  9. Wikipedia: Church of the Gesu
  10. Doundou Tchil: Classical Iconoclast
  11. Ruins of St. Paul's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Saint_Paul_in_Macau
  12. Marcelo Nishiyama A study of the church of St. Paul in Macao