Forget the $2 slot machines and high-stakes poker of Cotai – Macau’s true soul hides within the city centre’s Ruínas de São Paulo, otherwise known as the ruins of St Paul’s. Every day, an endless stream of photo-snapping visitors flow north from the Largo do Senado (Senado Square) to gaze at the cathedral’s magnificent Baroque façade, the only thing left standing after a fire devastated the building in 1835. It has since become a potent symbol of Macau itself – but do any tourists know why?
César Guillén Nuñez, a research fellow and art historian at the Macau Ricci Institute, an organisation dedicated to exploring historical links between China and the West, hopes to make it clear exactly why St Paul’s matters. His new book, Macao’s Church of Saint Paul: A Glimmer of the Baroque in China, attempts to reconstruct the cathedral as it existed before it was destroyed in an inferno. From its architecture and religious art, Guillén draws a portrait of Macau’s position as an early hub of Catholic missionary activity.
“St Paul’s is one of the glories of Macanese architecture,” he says. “It became synonymous with Macau. If you look at any image that exemplifies Macau’s past, it’s an image of St Paul’s façade. It is a strong statement that Macau is a Portuguese Christian city right here in China. That’s very powerful.”
Built towards the end of the 16th century, St Paul’s was part of a cluster of buildings that included a college, a parish church and several charitable institutions, all of which were run by the Jesuits, an influential order of the Catholic Church particularly active in China and Japan. In the 1620s, a few decades after the cathedral’s construction, a new façade was built by labourers from Fujian and Christian Japanese craftsmen who had fled persecution in their homeland. It featured a number of unusual touches, including a granite relief depicting Mary above a dragon-like hydra, accompanied by a Chinese inscription meaning, “The Holy Mother tramples on the dragon’s head.”
When Guillén first encountered the ruins in the 1970s, he was intrigued – and surprised. He had just arrived in Hong Kong after spending time in London studying Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American churches with façades meant to look like retables, or elaborate Iberian altar pieces. While observing St Paul’s, he realised that it was, in fact, also a retable façade – the only one of its kind in East Asia.
“The altar piece was so influential in counter-reformation Spain and Portugal that it started to do something very strange – it started to influence architecture,” he explains. “It even started to take over the facades of buildings. You started to have buildings that were quite monumental that tried to imitate these carved wooden retables. It was so odd to find it [in Macau]. You have to go to history to really explain what was going on.”
So Guillén did just that, trekking to libraries in London and Lisbon in order to find out as much about St Paul’s as possible. His dedication is apparent: the 178-page Macao’s Church of Saint Paul is about as comprehensive a work ever produced on the subject, though, unfortunately, it does sometimes verge on the esoteric. And while it does feature sketches of some of the cathedral’s details as they would have appeared before the fire, the book lacks a full-scale rendering or blueprint of the structure, an addition that would have helped readers get a better sense of what it originally looked like and how it functioned. Still, the book does manage to examine a complicated topic through the lens of art history, effectively scouring St Paul’s architecture for clues about the religious and political forces that shaped Macau.
“I hope that people will see St Paul’s as more than a tourist attraction,” says Guillén. “It has a value that is very precious. But apart from that, I think that, in art history, it has another dimension that is equally important. It’s related to colonial architecture in Brazil, in Angola or in Goa. St Paul’s is seen as part of Portuguese history but it’s not really seen as art history. I hope that people will now see it as a work of art that transcends all of us.”
Interest in St Paul’s does seem to be growing. In 2005, the historic centre of Macau, which includes the ruins as well as the neighbouring Senado Square and A-Ma Temple, was added to the Unesco World Heritage List, attracting worldwide interest in the cathedral’s remains. However, Guillén worries that this newfound interest in Macau’s history and heritage is somewhat superficial.
“What’s happening is that all of these monuments are restored – and sometimes not very well – mainly with tourists in mind. Attracting tourists is seen as a way of attracting money that will go to the casinos. Heritage becomes a side thing, a trip to the church between gambling.” On the other hand, however, one could argue that even if greed drives preservation, at least heritage is preserved.
With Macao’s Church of Saint Paul hitting bookshelves this month, Guillén’s hard work might just inspire a few of those tourists heading up to St Paul’s to look a little more closely at – and beyond – the enclave’s façade.
This article was originally published in the Macau section of Time Out Hong Kong.