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Church and Monastery of São Bento [St Benedict] (OLINDA)

Today, the Monastery of St Benedict is maintained thanks to its patrimony and the donations collected in the chapels.

Church and Monastery of São Bento [St Benedict] (OLINDA)

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 13/02/2017

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

In 1592, the third Pernambuco Grantee – Jorge de Albuquerque Coelho – asked the Order of St Benedict in Portugal to send some Benedictine monks to the captaincy. In order to do so, he made large land donations to the patrimony of the new religious order, granting them countless advantages, exemptions and perks.

In the vicinity of Varadouro da Galeota in 1597, the priests acquired a farm known as Olaria, which was later expanded through the acquisition of three more surrounding lots. Construction of the monastery was completed in 1599.

At that time, the temple was called the Monastery of the Patriarch Saint Benedict of the town of Olinda. However, the fire triggered by the Dutch on 25 November 1632 destroyed the building. But its most precious relic was able to be saved: its archive. From the mid-18th century, the monks decided to demolish what was left of the monastery, giving rise to the construction of a new building, which is the current one.

As the monastery was being maintained by the Benedictine Order, the friars went to live in a townhouse in Recife. The place was described in documents of the time as follows: at the top of a two-storey house situated on rua da banda do mar that leads to the alley of praça dos judeus. Bit by bit, the old building was restored and returned to operations in 1640.

One of the ancient records of the monastery shows that in the early 18th century, the Benedictine community of Olinda went through a rather troubled period. This began when Abbot Dom Diogo Rangel was accused of murdering a married lady.

To replace him as head of the abbey, priest Dom Luís came from Lisbon. The other monks, however, refused to obey the foreigner, claiming that he had the same patent of the priest-general. In this way a spectacle was set up: one insisted on assuming the position, and the others uncompromisingly decided not to regard him as superior.

After consulting several learned people, the Governor of the Captaincy then ordered that the monastery be surrounded by the infantry. When this occurred, the only alternative that the priests had was to leave the convent. Behind the sacristy scenes, it was said that Dom Diogo Rangel would return to his regular post, since his guilt had not been proven in the alleged murder. On the other hand, on the eve of his departure for Lisbon, Dom Luís sewed a sack into his cassock, and placed therein a number of valuable objects from the monastery.

Unfortunately, his ship was wrecked with no survivors, and the gold and silver artefacts belonging to the Benedictines of St Benedict’s Monastery settled on the bottom of the ocean.

With all the Benedictine patience, in the mid-18th century, the monastery was completely rebuilt and decorated like the Monastery of Tibães in Portugal. In this reform, the body of the church (whose cloister had remained unfinished since the year 1764) was enlarged; new tribunes and the bell tower were built, and the present frontispiece raised. As the monastery church has been restored at different times, it now has a neoclassical style. In the porthole window we see the date 1761; at the top of the side façade reads 1779; and in the sacristy is another inscription:


The frontispiece was designed by master-builder Francisco Nunes Soares, who also designed the façades of the Church of Our Lady of Pleasures in Montes Guararapes, and the chapel of Our Lady of the Conception of Jaqueira. In 1860, the monastery underwent another reform and received new gilding. The result of all this work was one of the most beautiful examples of Brazilian colonial religious art.

Some images are worth appreciating in the collection of the monastery: that of the Crucifixion in the choir, and that of the Infant Jesus of Olinda – a baked clay sculpture made by Friar Agostinho da Piedade between 1635 and 1639. In the monastery of São Bento, Sergeant-Major Pedro de Arenas was buried with great pomp in 1640, and the monks made a funeral mass in his honour.

The façade of the monastery is unpainted stone, and some arms appear in the church’s frontispiece. The access doors to the choir, as well as the side windows of the nave, have elaborate adornments and turned balusters. The pulpits are made in carved gilt and topped by a canopy with a palanquin. On the main throne of the altar, all wood and covered in gold, is the image of the patriarch St Benedict.

The main chapel of the convent church, in Baroque style, is one of the most beautiful in Brazil for its ornamentation and gilding. The high altar, on the other hand, stands out to the eyes for its splendid work in gilded carvings.

In 2001, the altar of the church was totally dismantled and restored by the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, and the following year it was transported to the United States, being exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Still on this altar are the images of St Benedict and St Scholastica.

In the monastery, golden carvings, jacaranda rails and period paintings from the life of St Benedict can be appreciated. In some of the rooms are portraits of former abbots and masters of the Benedictine order in the country. Such portraits, in the opinion of experts, have been so poorly retouched that today they look more like caricatures.

The sacristy of the monastery is one of the richest in Pernambuco. Painter and gilder José Eloy da Conceição worked in it in 1785, who was also the author of other works, including in the Church of St Peter of the Clerics and in the St Anthony Parish Church in Recife. It was José Eloy who painted the three large panels in the ceiling, which show some scenes of the life of St Benedict.

In the sacristy is a painting of St Sebastian, in oil on wood, belonging to the Italian school and made in the 14th century, which was transported to the monastery at the end of the 19th century; crystal mirrors; panels highlighting the penitent life of St Benedict; as well as pieces carved in jacaranda and a large washbasin carved in polychrome marble and made in Estremoz, Portugal. On top of this washbasin are four dolphins that slide under a decorated globe.

In the rich monastic sacristy are also a gold-framed altarpiece and a panel depicting Our Lady of Sorrows. The frontispiece of the temple, however, is basic, with stone scrolls and the coat of arms of the Benedictine Order. Located in the only tower of the Benedictine temple, its bell chime is the most sonorous in Olinda.

There is a large oratory in the upper choir of St Benedict which was carved in the same style as in the city of Braga, in Portugal. The entrance of the convent is primitive, with colonial doors that lead to the cloister. Here are buried several monks from the abbey.

The gallery’s windows feature decorated railings, and on the high altar is a Baroque, Neoclassical and Rococo influenced retablo. The chapel has a two-leafed door containing adornments, an arched side door, a painted ceiling, an altar and an altarpiece with golden niches.

When it comes to woodwork, it is possible to appreciate three armchairs that have high backs, surrounded by panels of pineapples, equipped with crosses that appear on the tables; two cabinets built into the wall of the sacristy; and chairs similar to those of the Church of St Peter of the Clerics in Recife, based on a Portuguese model, whose backs, legs and arms are carved with Rococo ornaments.

According to documents dated 13 September 1850, the monastery had the following assets at the time: 16 houses, 24 single-storey houses (almost all in Recife), rustic buildings, a plantation farm, a water-powered sugarcane mill (in Mussurepe), a wood farm with a villa (in Beberibe), and 254 slaves.

Today, the Monastery of St Benedict is maintained thanks to its patrimony and the donations collected in the chapels of the Church of Our Lady of the Mount, Olinda, and the Church of Our Lady of Pleasures in Montes Guararapes.
Recife, 29 May 2008.
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.

sources consulted

BARBOSA, Antônio. Relíquias de Pernambuco. São Paulo: Fundo Educativo Brasileiro, 1983. 

DUARTE, Luiz Vital. Olinda na formação da nacionalidade. Recife: Imprensa Universitária da UFRPE, 1976. 

FREYRE, Gilberto. Olinda: 2º guia prático, histórico e sentimental de cidade brasileira. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1968.

IGREJA e Mosteiro de São Bento [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em:<>. Acesso em: 10 fev. 2017.

MOSTEIRO de São Bento. Almanach de Pernambuco, Recife, ano 17, p. 65-68, 1915.

MOSTEIRO de São Bento. In: GALVÃO, Sebastião de Vasconcelos. Diccionario chorographico, historico e estatistico de Pernambuco. Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa Nacional, 1927. v. S a Z.  p. 93. 

MUELLER, Bonifácio. Olinda e suas igrejas: esboço histórico. Recife: Livraria Pio XII, 1945. 

SILVA, Leonardo Dantas. Pernambuco preservado. Recife, 2002.

how to quote this text

Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Igreja e Mosteiro de São Bento, Olinda, PE. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.