Faith and Modernity: Architecture and Art in a church in São Paulo

Flávia Rudge Ramos *

RAMOS, Flávia Rudge. Fauth and Modernity: Architecture and Art in a church in São Paulo. 19&20, Rio de Janeiro, v. III, issue 4, oct. 2008. Available at: <>. [Português]

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LEOPOLDO PETTINI: Regina Pacis Church - Perspective.

Drawing, 18 X 23 cm.

1.                      Faith and modernity are opposite words. Despite that, at the end of the 1930s, an architect, a painter and a sculptor broke the established patterns and overcame prejudices in order to build a modern church in a working class neighborhood – the Our Lady of Peace Church [Figure 1] -, which was requested by a missionary order and a community of Italian immigrants, who wanted a church that could represent the memory of their original country and also the hope of prosperity in the progress. They were: the architect Leopoldo Pettini, the painter Fulvio Pennacchi and the sculptor Galileo Emendabili. The initiative was taken by Father Francesco Milini, the provincial superior of the Carlista Congregation, in 1937.[1] Great figures of the Italian colony in São Paulo provided support in order to raise the necessary funds for the construction.

2.                      The place they chose for the church was Glicério neighborhood, which was a working-class center at that time, located among Cambuci, Mooca and Liberdade neighborhoods and crossed by General Glicério Street. With the raised money Father Milini bought a piece of land that was 10.000 m², a whole block near the cigarette factory Sudan. The project was not limited to the construction of the church, but also a community center where they could receive the newly arrived immigrants and preserve the Italian culture.[2]

3.                      In Brazil, most of the churches were in neo-gothic style, but no matter what style was adopted, the architects were instructed to consider that the basic function of the church was converting the visitor into a devotee, to create churches with a mystic atmosphere. The conference held in Malines, Belgium, in 1909, stated that the main objective of building a church had become essentially practical: housing the liturgy or the public service.[3]

4.                      According to Carlos Oswald, in an article for the magazine Fede e Arte published by the Vatican in 1954 [Figure 2], the modern taste was not comprehended neither appreciated by most of the faithful or the Catholic Clergy. For this reason, churches with modern architecture or decoration are not common. However, modern art, in its various forms and tendencies, was not depreciated by the Church, which was opposed only to the irreverent deformations and the unusual images that could be incomprehensible to the public[4].

5.                      When the II World War started and thousands of immigrants arrived in São Paulo fleeing from horror and death, the church had to widen its role offering to these people not only spiritual comfort but also physical one. The church complex [Figure 3] was designed to have a parochial house, a day care center and, on the following block, on Almirante Muriti Street, a shelter. There were also rooms for professionalization courses and catechesis for the immigrants’ children and the workers from industries nearby. This way, the Our Lady of Peace Church represented “the continuous plea of people’s religious souls in São Paulo for the world peace, in perennial prayer in front of the Queen of Peace, asking for the world pacification”.[5]

6.                      The architect Leopoldo Pettini shows erudition in the design project by establishing a solid dialogue with the Italian tradition and, at the same time, he is modern because he does not copy it. Leonardo Arroyo affirmed in his book “Igrejas de São Paulo” (São Paulo’s Churches) published in 1954 that the Our Lady of Peace Church “is the most original of all the temples in São Paulo.

7.                      Pettini followed some principles of modern architecture: not using ornaments, usefulness, rationalism and commitment with the structural and economical aspects. At the same time, he interprets a number of historical elements of Greco-roman and Italian architecture with a modern formal language. In spite of the innovative and bold architecture of the Our Lady of Peace Church, at that time, no architectural theorists wrote about their impressions of the church’s design project because modernist architecture did not accept these kinds of concessions. Any reference to the past could be understood as a regression to the historical architecture, which was strongly criticized by the modernist architects.

8.                      On the other hand, the modern characteristics of the design project caused intense resistance from the clergy and from society. At the beginning of the construction, there were rumors of a denunciation to the ecclesiastical authorities against Father Mario Rimondi according to which he was building “modernist monster” in Glicério neighborhood. Fortunately, it was nothing but intrigue and the Metropolitan Curia kept its support to the Carlista priests’ initiative.[6]

9.                      The architectural design project is simple, imposing, symmetric, concise, rational and balanced between proportion and style, form and function. The space is pleasant, welcoming and still continues attracting the faithful [Figure 4]. Fulvio Pennacchi’s first idea was accepted by the architect, and the Romanic architecture of the old Paleo-Christian Basilica became a reference for the design project of the Our Lady of Peace Church. From the year 313 on, when the Emperor Constantine allowed Christianity to be freely professed, the cults left the catacombs and gained light in the space of the first basilicas. The intention of the project was promoting a return to the original values of Christian faith expressed in the simple and austere traces of the Paleo-Christian church.

10.                   There are a lot of similarities between Saint Apollinaire Church built in Ravenna during this period [Figure 5] and the church designed by Pettini. Both churches have three naves and the central one is the tallest. The basilica is supported by arches without transept.[7] In both churches the upper windows, which are placed at a height between the roof of the side naves and the roof of the central nave, and the lower windows form an efficient lighting and ventilation system often used even nowadays. According to this system, the fresh air that comes inside the church through the lower windows gets heated, becomes lighter than the cold air, rises up and goes out through the upper windows. The air gets constantly renewed, what keeps a pleasant internal temperature, even on hot days.

11.                   The architectural project also establishes dialogues with the architecture of other periods. The Our Lady of Peace church, as well as the Greek temples, is built on top of a raised platform with a lot of steps. The symmetric façade made of visible bricks and without any ornaments has five big complete arches that unite six columns, forming the pronaos[8], a transition place between the profane space of the street and the sacred space inside the temple.

12.                   The church is 18 meters high, 25 meters wide and 49 meters long, and occupies an area of 1.225 m2 with a public capacity for 368 people sitting and 200 people standing. The tall and narrow campanile is 37.5 meters high.[9]

13.                   The plan of the Our Lady of Peace church [Figure 6] is also similar to the Saint Apollinaire in Classe.  It is longitudinal and symmetric; its pastophorium[10] is formed in the center by the apse[11] where the altar is and has the prothesis and the diaconicon on each side[12]. The design plan is thought to operate according to the catholic liturgy dynamic and the movement of the faithful.

14.                   Inside the temple, which has a barrel-vault placed above it, there are two side naves and eight chapels. The central nave is formed by a wide longitudinal space that ends in the elevated high altar. Behind it there is an apse, and on each side there is a pulpit covered with marble, with aerodynamic forms conceived according to the pure and geometric Art-Déco lines; from above, two elevated choirs communicate with the nave through narrow arched windows. 

15.                   About the church’s architecture, the journalist Daniel Linguanotto wrote in 1949, in a report for the magazine O Globo that:

16.                                                        The arch that is repeated hundreds of times in different proportions, internally and externally, and gives the impression of celestial lightness, of immensity when it is small and intimate, is fundamental in architecture. The words thin and soft could define this impression. The arches that project the walls beyond the figured space intensify the illusion of wideness without limits, which is soft, fades away as if the clouds confined the temple, an illusion reinforced by the blue shades of the frescoes.

17.                   As a way to grant the faithful’s devotion requests, each side chapel has an altar dedicated to a saint where people can worship them. According to the decoration studies and the internal scale model [Figure 7], the inside decoration of the church with its frescoes and sculptures was planned in agreement with the architecture project. As Menotti del Picchia stated, “there are not soloists in this symphonic performance. The whole - the conceptional unity - dominates the parts[13].

18.                   The saints represented in the church are examples of the virtue the church intends to disseminate. The paintings and sculptures follow a circular moral-didactic plan that begins in the high altar with the birth of the Blessed Virgin, continues with the descriptions of Jesus’ birth [Figure 8], the events of the saints’ lives, narrated in the side chapels, and ends with the murals of the last judgment [Figure 9a and Figure 9b] [14].

19.                   In each side chapel of the Church [Figure 10], the saint sculptured by Emendabili is static at the centre while, at the back, two frescoes by Fulvio Pennacchi seem to be in movement to narrate the episodes of the saint’s story. The artists invite us to watch the events as if they were performed on a stage. In these chapels the representations of the figures are full-scale, but, in order to achieve an effect of depth as a whole, the saint sculptures are a little taller than the painted figures. The high altar has a larger scale: the sculpture of Our Lady with little Jesus is 3.5 meters high and the figures of the frescoes are three meters high. At the center of the apse, between both frescoes, is placed the monumental painting of the Crucified Christ that is seven meters high [Figure 11].

20.                   In this Church, Fulvio Pennachi and Galileo Emendabili express unity in the frescoes and sculptures’ aesthetic language. As Italian immigrants, they do not abandon or deny the tradition of their country of origin; on the contrary, they use them in combination with the new ideas coming from the Brazilian artistic scenery. In this sense, they absorb two opposing tendencies in their work: The Novecento, a movement arisen in Italy, related to fascism that used to defend a kind of “return to the order” and the appreciation of classic ideas in art; and movements arisen in Europe between the end of the XIX century and the three first decades of the XX century, especially the School of Paris, which defended a rupture with the traditional postulates defended by the academy.[15] One can also observe in the frescoes a clear influence of Giotto’s narrative painting [Figure 12], that in the XIV century covered the walls of a small church in Padua (northern Italy) with frescoes that narrate stories inspired in Christ and Virgin Mary’s lives.

21.                   When asked by the magazine O Globo about his references in the representation of the saints, Pennacchi answered: “You know what, we need something inside us to paint frescoes, you cannot have a model. They were in my mind. I just took them and painted quickly, before the mortar got dry, that’s it.” 

22.                   The church, in its architectural and artistic concept, seeks conciliation between past and future, sky and land. It is possible to observe that Pettini, Pennacchi and Emendabili used a vast repertoire of the past in order to build a new and modern church.

23.                   The Our Lady of Peace church, whose consecration happened in 1954, was the only church in São Paulo chosen by the national committee to participate in the International Exhibition of Sacred Art of the Holy Year in 1950 in Rome.[16] Four years later, the work made by Pettini, Pennacchi and Emendabili was highlighted in the article Arte Sacra Contemporanea in Brasile of the magazine Fede e Arte published by the Vatican. The churches Our Lady of Peace and Saint Teresa, a project by the architect Archimedes Memória in Rio de Janeiro, are the only examples of modern architecture presented. According to the author of the article, Carlos Oswald, both temples represent the praiseworthy efforts to harmonize formal and constructive elements with the liturgical and canonic demands. The article also shows pictures of two frescoes by Pennacchi and the silver chalice designed by Emendabili [Figure 13].


* Master’s degree in Aesthetics and Art History from the Post-graduation Program in Aesthetics and Art History USP; Professor at the Design College of the Foundation Institute for Teaching of Osasco.

[1] GALLO, O Mensageiro da Paz Magazine, 1950, nº 135

[2] Idem

[3] A IGREJA através dos tempos, Bulletin A Relíquia, September 2005, nº  91, p. 24

[4] Fede e Arte - Rivista Internazionale di Arte Sacra, Vatican nº 6, p.: 180

[5] IGREJA Nossa Senhora da Paz - A sagração do Altar Mor e a inauguração da Capela Mor do novo templo construído pelos padres da Pia Sociedade dos Missionários de S. Carlos (Our Lady of Peace Curch - The consecration of the High Altar and the inauguration of the Main Chapel of the new temple built by the priests from the Pia Society of the Missionaires of Saint Carlos) , A Gazeta, S. Paulo, 03/27/1943.

[6] LINGUANOTTO, Daniel, Nossa Senhora da Paz: A mais ‘moderna’ construção sacra do continente depois da Igreja da Pampulha (Our Lady of Peace: The most “modern” sacred construction of the continent after the Paumpulha Church), Globo Magazine, 15 Oct..1949.

[7] Transept:- part of a building with one or more naves that cross perpendicularly its main structure.

[8] Pronaos: from the Greek pro, that means in front, and naos, that is temple. The front part of an ancient Greco-roman temple.

[9] According to the architectural project and the updated plan provided by the parochial house.

[10] Pastophorium: the posterior part of a paleo-christian church.

[11] Apse: arched place with a semi-circular design where the high altar is located.

[12] Prothesis and the diaconicon: places reserved for the deacons and the sacred paraments.

[13] Estão fazendo uma obra de Arte, in O Mensageiro da Paz, Monthly body of the Pia Society of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, nº 135, Dec. 1950.

[14] LINGUANOTTO, Daniel, Nossa Senhora da Paz: A mais ‘moderna’ construção sacra do continente depois da Igreja da Pampulha, Globo Magazine, 15 Oct.1949, p: 71.

[15] CHIARELLI, Tadeu, in Catalogue of the exhibit of Galileu Emendabili at the Conjunto Cultural da Caixa, São Paulo, 2005.

[16] LINGUANOTTO, Daniel, Nossa Senhora da Paz: A mais ‘moderna’ construção sacra do continente depois da Igreja da Pampulha, Globo Magazine, 15 Oct. 1949, p: 26.