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The Ruins of St. Paul's Church, Macau

The city of Macau in Southern China might be best known for its casinos and luxury hotels, but its most treasured icon is actually a church, or what remains of it.

The Church of St. Paul, also known as "Mater Dei", is a 17th-century Portuguese church dedicated to Saint Paul the Apostle. It was constructed from 1602 to 1640 by Jesuit priests who travelled to the Far East to spread Catholicism. Indeed, the Jesuits first entered China through the Portuguese settlement on Macau, and the Church of St. Paul was its first church. Originally, the church complex also included what was then the first Western university in East Asia. The church itself was one of the largest Catholic churches in Asia at the time.

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Photo credit: Christian Junker/Flickr

Most of the church was built of wood, but it had a magnificent façade constructed of granite blocks. This is the only part of the building that survived the typhoon and the subsequent fire that consumed the rest of the church in 1835. This was the third fire in the church’s history.

The original church was built in 1580, but it caught fire twice— in 1595 and again in 1601—prompting the Jesuits to start rebuilding. The original granite-block front wall was enlarged and a granite façade carved by Japanese Christians was added between 1620 and 1627. After the third fire destroyed the church, it was not rebuilt because by then it was already abandoned by more than seventy years after the Jesuits were expelled by the Portuguese authorities. The wall and façade, however, was strengthened.

The surviving facade rises in four colonnaded tiers, and is covered with carvings and statues that illustrate the early days of the Catholic Church in Asia. There are statues of the Virgin and the Saints, symbols of the Garden of Eden and the crucifixion, and carvings of angels and the devil, a Chinese dragon and Japanese chrysanthemum, a Portuguese sailing ship, and pious warnings written in Chinese characters.

The three arches at the bottom probably once held tall double doors, as suggested by a 1854 painting of the church by the German-American artist Wilhelm Heine. The painting shows one of the doors closed and bells mounted in east and west arches.

The dangerously leaning structure was further strengthened in the 1990s with buttress made of concrete and steel. A steel stairway allows tourists to climb up to the top of the facade from the rear to get a closer look at the stone carvings and to enjoy a panoramic view of the city below.

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An 1854 painting of the facade of St. Paul's Church by Wilhelm Heine.

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Photo credit: Xiao Niao/Flickr

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Photo credit: Justin Gaurav Murgai/Flickr

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Photo credit: Leo Suarez/Flickr

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Photo credit: Razian/Flickr

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Photo credit: Andy Enero/Flickr

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Photo credit: Alexander Savin/Flickr

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Behind the façade is a staircase and remains of the original pillars and a shrine. Photo credit: Darren Poon/Flickr

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3D rendering of the church. Photo credit: church.kychung.com

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