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Sé de Olinda, Pernambuco

With the creation of the bishopric of Olinda, in 1676, the Sé was elevated to the position of cathedral.

Sé de Olinda, Pernambuco

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Last update: 17/03/2022

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - Researcher at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation - Master in Psychology

The first building of the Sé de Olinda, built in the period 1537/1540, was simple, poorly constructed, made of mud in Baroque style, and having as patron the Most Holy Savior of the World Jesus Christ. As the building was nearly collapsing, another construction in Gothic style was built in its place, which was completed in 1584, thanks to the intervention of Frei Antônio Barreiro, the third bishop of Brazil. In this second project, several side chapels were built, such as those of São João and Reis Magos.


In 1591, a bricklayer and master builder from Lisbon - Braz da Mata - carried out a “vault work” in the chancel of the cathedral. Eight years later (1599), the nave of the temple was enlarged. The works continued until 1616, when the engineer Cristóvão Álvares built the vestry and a barbican.


In 1631, like so many other religious monuments, the cathedral was left in ruins after the great fire that took place in Olinda, on the occasion of the Dutch presence in Pernambuco. However, the building was rebuilt in the second half of the 17th century.


With the creation of the bishopric of Olinda, in 1676, the Sé was elevated to the position of cathedral. Even so, in 1689, the religious still asked the faithful to carry stones and other materials, in order to finish the works. On this occasion, the temple gained the churchyard and its wall, stone seats and pilasters, the ceiling, and the carved ornamentation of the altars and the interior facades of the doors. Overall, these works took a century to be completed.


Before the arrival of the Flemings in Pernambuco, the Cathedral had three naves, a large tower on the south side, and a chancel with a masonry dome. In 1630, however, the church was desecrated, having even been used as a stall for the horses of heretics. At that time, its name had changed to Igreja-Matriz de São Salvador do Mundo de Olinda.


This construction was mentioned in several Dutch works. Likewise, it was detailed by people who visited it before the fire of 1631, or who relied on descriptions dating from the first half of the 17th century. Among such citations, we can highlight those by the Flemish authors C. Baerle (1923), Joan Nieuhof (1942), and painter Frans Post, who portrayed the temple as a ruin about eight times.


It is worth noting that the (disappeared) old facade of the second Cathedral gave way to the current building; and that the third temple - the present Cathedral of Olinda - was built by Archbishop D. Miguel de Lima Valverde in 1919.


The church is divided into three main aisles, formed by an arcade on stone columns, which close the two sides (the chapels of São Salvador do Sacramento and Santo Cristo) and the chancel, where the espiscopal solio (chair) is located and the canons’ chairs, magnificently carved in rosewood.


The chapel of Santo Cristo is protected by a railing of rosewood hand rails, turned up to the cornices of the pilasters. The carving work is very good, the walls of the chapel being covered with some oil panels on wood: one of them, representing the prayer of the Horto; and three others depicting the scourging of Christ.


In the side aisles, there are five altars: two in the Gospel part and three in the Epistle. The entire bar of the temple was made with painted Portuguese tiles, representing certain facts in the History of the Catholic Church. Part of the walls of the old cathedral was covered with Portuguese tiles from the 17th century. Of the old tiles, however, only nine lower (displaced) rows of the chapel’s mural remain, next to the Gospel. Experts believe that these tiles were part of a large polychrome patterned rug with a wide design.


Inside the church, there are ashlar columns and arches. In its central nave, the introduction of upper openings can be observed. This architectural detail, since the beginning of the Renaissance, had been abandoned from the projects of most Portuguese churches. In this way, unlike other Portuguese temples, the Cathedral maintains the Romanesque-Gothic tradition, where the lighting penetrates through small openings located at the top of the building.


The sacristy of the temple is large and well decorated, with a rosewood furniture, with padded drawers, to store the vestments, covering the entire width of the room. On this piece of furniture, leaning against the wall, there is a piece carved in rosewood, divided by beautiful twisted columns with ornamentation, with a niche in the center and oil panels. Covering the walls are old rosewood frames.


To the left of the side entrance is a small private community cemetery with eight graves. In the chancel, in particular, rest the mortal remains of bishops D. Mathias de Figueiredo e Mello (in a shallow grave), D. Francisco Xavier Aranha and D. João da Purificação Marques Perdigão (in existing deposits on the walls). Inside the Cathedral are the tombs of its diocesan bishops, whose inscriptions have been largely erased by time.


The church ceiling is covered by twenty-four panels that show some Gospel passages, such as the departure from Egypt and the exile of Our Lady; and, on the lining of the entrance hall, the image of Saint Francis can be seen lacing, in the Franciscan cords, individuals of all social classes.


The architect Manuel Gonsalves Olinda, responsible for the construction projects for the Franciscan churches and convents of Recife and Ipojuca, and the engineers Francisco Frias da Mesquita (of Portuguese origin) and Baccio de Filicaya (of Florentine origin) would have participated in the reconstruction work of the church.


The Cathedral of Olinda represented, for three centuries, the center of the religious life of the State of Pernambuco.


At present, the church building has three naves, which are separated from each other by monolithic Tuscan columns. However, it should be noted that, around 1959, the chancel of the temple was a nursery for bats, which flew in flocks when the place received visitors.


In 1974, the Cathedral underwent a new restoration, this time through the Historic Cities Restoration Program, created by Minister João Paulo dos Reis Veloso; and, in 1976, the National Art Foundation of Pernambuco - Fundarpe - restored the temple’s primitive architectural style.


The location of the Sé, on the plateau of the highest hill in the city, is magnificent and imposing. From there, one can see a beautiful landscape and spot both Olinda and Recife. Around the temple, there are shops and many artisans selling regional products and artifacts - clothes, carvings, paintings, food, among others.


The space around the church is well maintained, with several coconut water kiosks, and women, dressed as Bahian women, who sell tapioca, fried coalho cheese and acarajés, in addition to offering other delicious delicacies of the Pernambucan cusine. Sé de Olinda is a mandatory tourist spot for all those who visit Pernambuco.



Recife, November 20, 2003.

sources consulted

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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.

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

SÉ. In: GALVÃO, Sebastião de Vasconcelos. Diccionario chorographico, histórico e estatístico de Pernambuco. Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa Nacional, 1927. v. S a Z. p. 92-101.

SILVA, Leonardo Dantas. Pernambuco preservado. Recife: [s. n.], 2002.

how to quote this text

VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Sé de Olinda, Pernambuco. In: PESQUISA Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2003. Available at: Accessed on: month day year. (Ex.: Aug. 6 2009.)