Friday, June 12, 2009

Pelourinho Bahia

Spent the day with a native guide of Bahia named Wilson, who wears his long hair in about a thousand tiny braids and taught himself four languages besides Portuguese. we went to the oldest part of the old city, a warren called Pelourinho. Pelo, as it’s called for short, has its own reputation for quick heists and muggings, so you don’t wear earrings, other jewelry, don’t show cameras etc.

Yet Wilson showed examples of ecclesial beauty in a place I would never have expected to see them. Florence, Taxco, Seville, yes. But not Pelo, which now I have to add to my list of places to find great church art.

Asian -- mostly Chinese --artisans from Portuguese colonies built a Jesuit church using the blue of Ming dynasty pottery for the Madonna’s robes, with its touch of teal instead of the traditional clear blue, and her usually-flowing mantle draped instead across her waist, obi-style.

Staring into the baroque carved golden curls and swirls that covered the walls reminded me of the kid’s game of looking into drawings of clouds and answering, “Who do you see there?” Once your eyes became adjusted , you see Chinese masks everywhere.

Niches in the Jesuit church were roofed with what looked like Asian warrior helmets -- think Genghis Khan. Parallel to an altar column, if you looked closely, a dragon climbed from floor to ceiling. Unless I’m mistaken, it breathed fire.

The Franciscan golden church was built by black African slaves, not paid workers like the Asians. They created a stunning jewel box: seriously, imagine every inch of every surface, ceiling and walls, niches and chapels, covered in gold. Yet the effect was not cold, not gaudy.
But neither did the blizzard of gold feel like it would lead a church-goer to greater understanding or devotion; that is, to me it impressed without inspiring. Wilson pointed out acts of resistance on the part of the enslaved artisans: male cherubs with saucy expressions whose penises ---- before they were discovered by an abashed cleric -- stood large and erect.

In the cloister, 4 walls are covered in tiles in dutch blue and white, telling legends. I’ve never been in one like this. Walls not of paintings or carvings or marble or sandstone but tile, remarkably preserved in spite of Bahia heat and moisture. I felt like Alice in Wonderland after having the Eat Me cookie (small), sitting on a Delft platter.

Inside the church, a large, covered entrance, where the tiles were perfectly preserved, they looked fine as a teacup.

When we left the church I told Wilson how fabulous it all was, and he said the beauty of Bahia is ‘passing us on all sides.’ Blue eyes, green eyes, although three quarters of Salvador’s population are descendants of African blacks. But his dark skin is red toned “from the Indians,” his hair black and tightly curled, and his lips “not thick but narrow like the Europeans in my ancestry.” This is Bahia’s true beauty, “its best gift,” he said.