Masterpieces of Light and Space: St. Dominic’s Church (Igreja de São Domingos), Macau, China

I really don’t know what I expected out of our visit to Macau, other than to eat a pork chop bun, see (but perhaps not gamble in) casinos, and be visiting a place I had always wanted to go that was also featured as a finals destination for America’s Next Top Model. I do know that I didn’t expect to find myself walking with my beautiful bride-to-be from Church to Church and sitting and pondering the meaning of life in each one, being thankful to be in a place that felt somewhat Western after spending two years in East Asia.

Macau

So we arrive in Macau by ferry from Hong Kong, get out of the bus that takes you downtown, walk across the plaza and into this church. St. Dominic’s. Hard to miss as it’s canary yellow. It seemed kinda old, but I just googled it to get its name and basic facts (I have photos from 5 years ago and basically no notes…) and would you believe it was founded in 1587? It’s going on 500 years old.

Macau

So you walk into St. Dominic’s and it’s BRIGHT white. I imagine it’s kinda the shade of white that the Portuguese could find to make paint with when they arrived that most reminded them of churches at home. It reminded me a bit of the old Spanish missions here in South Texas that came with the Conquistadores around the same time period, however the imagery is just a little different. It’s like the images of Mary and Christ that you see as more realistic in the Spanish churches were a bit more stylized so as not to be “graven” images by the Portuguese. I don’t think that’s the real explanation, but there is a difference in style.

Macau

For example, this wood carving.

Macau

The whole church is wooden, I guess due to the lack of marble available on the island. I found the construction to be very straight, too. There’s lots of ornamentation on the surface, but it seems to be mostly appliqué.

Macau

I’m not sure, but I’m guessing this is St. Dominic himself. I think the art style I’m referring to has to do with the high contrast of his facial features and low contrast of his robes. I just asked a Catholic friend if this was him. She thinks maybe. The one finger is a little weird, he’s missing his full iconography, but he’s in a dominican habit.

Macau

Once again, I think the art style is kinda high contrast around the face, low contrast everywhere else. Putting the unimportant parts in a manmade bokeh.

Macau

This chancel is baroque AF. Can you not imagine that in this church you are in Baroque Europe, not in China? I could. The whole day in Macau I felt connected to my Western roots. The food, the language on the signs (where I live it would be Spanish, but dude, Spain and Portugal share a few similarities, amirite?)

Macau

The man himself.

Macau

Once again guessing St. Dominic.

Macau

Immaculate Heart of Mary imagery, “looking Portuguese” according to my Catholic friend who is helping me with this post.

Macau

Maybe Mary, Queen of Heaven. Heaven knows.

Macau

JC.

Macau

Then back to the real world. Macau was amazing because it was almost like being at home. I grew up around Spanish language, Spanish colonial churches, and the sort. These Portuguese churches, the Portuguese language…it hit close to home. But then unmistakably you realize that you’re in a unique pocket of China, thousands of miles from the Western culture you grew up in. And you’re happy because not many people (even though millions upon millions) will ever go to such a unique place.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Hong Kong, China

Hong KongHong Kong, a city that truly never sleeps…pretty sure you could see it from space if you needed to. 

I knew that Hong Kong was a former British colony well before I ever had the opportunity to visit, but I guess I never realized just how British it would still be nearly two decades after the colony was handed back to the People’s Republic. I also had no idea at the time that Anglican churches and their histories would become very interesting to me – I certainly did not foresee my return to church, nor my return to church happening in a member of the Anglican Communion.

Hong KongBell tower of St. John the Evangelist in Hong Kong’s Central district

So today, looking through my old photos for a beautiful old church to write about, I came across the photos of this beautiful old church in Hong Kong, only to to burst with joy in my heart when I realize it’s the Anglican Cathedral in Hong Kong, the seat of the diocese of the Anglican Church in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. The church I’m referring to here is the beautiful, understated, Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

Hong KongEven the interior of the church is stately, reserved, and beautiful

The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is, like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, a haven of calm in a frenetic, bustling city. Given all of Hong Kong’s glitter and glamour, a quiet, calm spot is a bit of an oasis. I guess it always seemed that way, as the were conducting mass in the church even as the Japanese were shelling the island during the second world war.

Hong KongThe Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is completely dwarfed by its more modern surroundings

It’s also a great contrast between 19th century British Empire and ultramodern Hong Kong/Chinese architecture. The contrast is stark. From any angle of St. John’s, a skyscraper looms in the background. The sound of taxis and the lift to the summit of Victoria Peak create a din in the background. The tropical environs clash with the British decorative-Gothic architecture of 1849.

What a cool old church, in a cool old/new city.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Ruins of St. Paul’s church, Macau, China

MacauWhat remains of St. Paul’s, on top of a hill in Macau

I thought maybe for my next post I should get away from the super obvious stomping grounds of Italy, France, Spain, and you know, the entire western world. I was thinking back, when I realized that we had visited a very old church in China, on the formerly Portuguese island of Macau.

MacauNot sure. Could be St. Paul himself.

Truth be told, we ended up making our day in Macau all about the old churches and Portuguese food. I guess after a couple of years in Asia we were just craving some western culture. St. Paul’s is remarkable for it’s location overlooking the city, and the fact that aside from the facade, it’s not there anymore.

MacauDragons make me think Asia. Caravels make me think Portugal

The church was apparently at one time the largest in East Asia, burned down a few times, and finally completely destroyed in a typhoon.

MacauClear glass panels let you look into the foundation

St. Paul’s stood for about 300 years, and it seems that with nothing but the facade intact, there wouldn’t be much to see. However you can look down into the foundations through glass panels, and the crypt is still very much in one piece. It’s pretty crazy to see the bones of Portuguese explorers from the 1500s, but they are lying there, probably unaware that the once great church above them is nearly gone. Most interesting were the descriptions of the bodies, who they were, and how and where they died. Lots of violence, all over Asia. Apparently exploration was a tough business.

Macau
The only picture I took in the crypt, didn’t think it was respectful to photograph the dead, I guess.

So while St. Paul’s certainly has more natural light than just about any church I’ve ever been in, due to its lack of walls and a roof, I think it still merits a post in this series. I think the crypt alone merits a post. To see the reach of the European explorers who destroyed civilizations, wrought havoc, and created the world as we know it in such a dramatic fashion is enlightening. To see the interplay of east and west in the bas-reliefs on the remains of the facade makes you think that the Portuguese process of conversion was perhaps a bit more likely to incorporate the local traditions than the Spanish. But the bones. They tell the story without saying a word.