On the south-west edge of the Sao Paulo connurbation, Embu maintains an identity distinct from the urban sprawl of its enormous neighbour. The centro histórico is a series of cobbled streets with brightly painted stuccoed houses, and shops and restaurants serving the tourist trade. Elsewhere in town there are collections of shops selling ‘arty’ furniture – heavy wooden mock-rustic chairs, kitchen and console tables, wrought iron chandeliers, gates and panels, pool-side furniture, sculptures made from scrap car parts – but in the centre the work is finer.

Picturesque houses and market stalls on every street of the old centre

The shops and stalls sell a wide array of paintings – naive, realist, Brasilian and European landscapes, abstract and op-art – and sculpture, all kinds of handcrafts, bric-a-brac, food and drink, semi-precious stones and jewellery, carpets, and antiques. The better quality antiques, some as early as eighteenth century, come from the fazendas or large farms – Marcelo Aguila has a tall library bookcase including steps and a landing wide enough to accommodate an armchair. He also has a set of four white-glazed earthenware statues of women portraying the seasons, and a pair of console tables of jacaranda wood with marquetry tops and ivory detailing.

Views across Largo dos Jesuitas …

There are lace and fabric handcrafts, wooden objets d’art and utensils, and hats and other clothing for sale, and a specialist pet market. An excellent silversmith sets a wide range of Brasilian stones. A forro duo play accordion and pandeiro – like a  tambourine – on a street corner. A clown in full costume offers to make balloon animals.

… down Rua Boa Vista …

The  covered terraces of restaurants are filled with day-trippers enjoying food, drink and live music, some even dancing in the lunch-time crowd. The sun beats down fiercely, though the dark clouds piling up bring lightning and heavy rain later. Not one, but two ‘living statues’ perform in the main square – see above and below.

… and towards Rua Nossa Senhora do Rosario

We have lunch at the excellent Emporio Sao Pedro, a business which has successfully combined food and antiques for a number of years. A James Taylor sound-alike troubador sings and plays guitar in accented English. The restaurant’s address, the steep Viela das Lavadeiras or Laundress’ Alley suggests something of the history of the town centre.

View from the verandah of the Emporio Sao Pedro, Viela das Lavadeiras

As in much of Brasil, European settlement was led by the Jesuits, who established a church here in 1554, later adding a monastery, which buildings today form the Museu de Arte Sacra dos Jesuitas. Built to a simple rectangular plan with high white walls, blue shuttered windows and a pan-tiled roof, the church is both elegant and cooly functional.

Museu de Arte Sacra dos Jesuitas, Embu das Artes

The white walls, plain wooden floor and ceiling help to focus attention on the ornately carved and painted baroque wooden altar pieces, with twisted columns framing illuminated saints, a central crucifix and a monochrome Madonna above. Clerical vestments are displayed as if kneeling, wooden candelabra are backlit on the altar. A carved balcony decorated with the monogram of the Society of Jesus juts out of the right-hand wall at first-floor level, presumably for the principal of the monastery to be able to address the lay faithful.

The view north from the Jesuit monastery

The construct is intensely theatrical, the large bare space for the audience focused on the miraculous images in the cabinet beyond the fourth wall of the altar rail, the front row reserved for the brothers now at rest beneath the polished wooden panels let into the floor, the decorated balcony ready to broadcast the devotional word of the Society. Out in the brothers’ cloistered garden, a plain cross is picked out with red flowering plants and a white gravelled border behind a low clipped hedge.

Though the museum has a rich holding of religious art, artefacts and architecture, you can sense in the simplicity of how its message is formulated that the organisation is trying to reach beyond its history to its mission – AMDG, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, to the greater glory of God. The Google Earth satellite view below of the Society’s monogram in the garden at Embu – zoom in, right hand side – continues to broadcast its devotion.


I am reminded by this view, by the street-names in Embu, by the dedication of the museum volunteers, by the everyday use of expressions like “Nossa!” – for Nossa Senhora – and “Graças a Deus” – Thanks be to God – how intensely religious a culture is Brasil.