SÃO PAULO – Established in 1551, the Archdiocese of Salvador, in Bahia State, is the primatial see in Brazil. That is why the coastal city, which welcomes thousands of tourists every month, has dozens of centuries-old churches, some of them important creations of the Brazilian baroque, neoclassical, and rococo styles.

Many of these churches were adorned with panels of azulejos, traditional Portuguese glazed tiles usually painted with arabesques or figurative themes.

Due to their age, the continual action of the sea air, and the high number of visitors, those decorated walls suffer from continual deterioration and have to be restored over time – a great challenge in a country where the historical patrimony is often neglected by the State.

One of the churches currently struggling to preserve its azulejos is the Church of the Third Order of Saint Francis. Its construction began in 1702, and the azulejos were brought from Portugal not long after that.

“There are walls with azulejos at the cloister, aisles, and galleries. Some of them are quite degraded,” Virginia di Tullio, a Third Order board’s assistant, told Crux.

The Church of the Third Order of Saint Francis in Salvador, Brazil. (Credit: City government of Salvador.)

Di Tullio explained that she was hired by the Order’s President Jayme Balleiro in order to work on a project to restore the panels. The plan was approved by the government’s program of cultural incentives, which allows companies to redirect to artistic and cultural endeavors part of their taxes burden. But no donor has been found yet.

“We need to obtain R$ 5 million [about $920,000]. We have been looking for companies in Brazil, Portugal, and other countries, but nobody decided to fund it yet,” she said.

Some panels portray Lisbon before the great 1755 earthquake that destroyed the city. Meanwhile, he azulejos which are exposed to the outside of the building are in a worse condition.

“We had to put gauze on some parts in order to prevent the tiles from falling off the walls,” di Tullio described.

The church had been closed for more than a year due to the pandemic, but it has been reopened since September. More than 120 people visit it every day.

The church is near the Church of the First Order of Saint Francis, whose construction began at the end of the 17th century. A fundamental product of the Brazilian baroque, with internal decoration in neoclassical and rococo style, the church has been suffering water damage as well as deterioration s caused by the sea air.

“The tridimensional paintings on the ceiling, made by painter José Joaquim da Rocha with a French technique, have almost disappeared due to the humidity. Walls covered with Portuguese tiles have been degraded by the salty air,” Franciscan Brother Filipe Ferreira told Crux.

An example panels of azulejos, traditional Portuguese glazed tiles, in the Church of the Third Order of Saint Francis in Salvador, Brazil. (Credit: Third Order of Saint Francis.)
An example panels of azulejos, traditional Portuguese glazed tiles, in the Church of the Third Order of Saint Francis in Salvador, Brazil. (Credit: Third Order of Saint Francis.)

There are azulejos at the churchyard walls and at the cloister. They show episodes of Saint Francis’s life, biblical themes, and scenes of daily life. Ferreira explained that they have been exposed to the sea air since they were created on the Portuguese coast.

“The salinity damages the tiles’ glaze. When [the glaze is destroyed], humidity attacks them with greater strength and further deteriorates them,” he said.

The church was officially declared part of the country’s historical patrimony years ago, so the State is responsible for its preservation.

Since 2020, the government has been working on the azulejos’ restoration. Some tiles have almost completely lost their paint, so the restoration team has been trying to find records of them in archives in order to reproduce the original motifs.

“Unfortunately, at times historical buildings get very deteriorated until the government decides to restore them,” Ferreira said.

One of the most important churches in Salvador, the 18th century Church of Our Lord of Bonfim has azulejo panels at the main aisle and two side corridors, all of them depicting Gospel scenes. Two months ago, their restoration began.

“It is a thorough work: The tiles are taken out of the wall, washed, have their paintings restored, and then they are implanted again over a special board, which impedes humidity,” said Father Edson Menezes da Silva, Bonfim’s rector.

Church of the First Order of Saint Francis in Salvador, Brazil. (Credit: Salvador city government.)

Decades ago, the tiles were specially treated, but deterioration over time forced the church to seek help again.

“In a church like ours, you cannot conserve the azulejos as in a museum. There is a great movement of people every day,” he said.

The problems on the panels were identified years ago. The church asked a Bahia congressman to help, and he obtained resources from the federal budget to restore the azulejos and the altar, where the wooden section had been damaged by termites and the golden lining was corroding.

“But there is a long bureaucratic process. Only this year the funds were finally released,” da Silva said.

While the church waited for the money to be released, the tiles’ deterioration kept advancing – and da Silva was getting more and more distressed.

“It took so long that the congressman is not even a congressman anymore. He failed to be reelected three years ago.” The works are scheduled to be finished within a month, he added.

Many other churches and associated buildings still wait for restoration in Salvador and elsewhere in the country. An agreement between the bishops’ conference and the governmental agency in charge of historical buildings was signed last year. The deal, which encompasses the conservation and restoration of ancient churches across the country, was received with joy by many in Brazil, given the record of State negligence concerning the nation’s patrimony.

“When we do not preserve the historical patrimony, we take the risk of becoming a people without memory,” said Ferreira.