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Impressive, right? Who would have thought that such a simple building would hide such a dazzling interior?
The Monastery of San Benito, despite its austere exterior, offers anyone who steps into it a unique experience, a jewel of the colonial Baroque, not only of the city of Rio, but also of Brazil.
Illustrated in paintings and cartographic maps until the late 19th century, it was once a prominent landmark due to its location at the top of the hill, especially for navigators approaching the coast of the city from the open sea.
The construction of the monastery dates back to 1590, when two Portuguese nobles, Diogo de Brito de Lucerda and his father Manoel de Brito, donated the land of the newly founded city of San Sebastian to the Benedictine monks of Bahia.
The monks were responsible for erecting this sanctuary of peace, prayer, silence and work in the heart of the metropolis, making it one of the city's biggest building projects in the 17th century.
The moderate exterior and the caution of introducing any striking elements are related to the Late Renaissance, in a style known as Portuguese Mannerism. The towers with pyramids, the straight, well-defined lines, the absence of ornamentation beyond the tiles in the walls that are typical of the Portuguese decorative style, and the geometric design on the gallery floor that is reminiscent of the famous walkway of Copacabana beach due to the use of black and white, may lead you to think that the Monastery of San Benito is just another austere and boring building. But you could not be more wrong. As you'll find out, when you step into the interior of the church, you'll be speechless.
The contrast between the outside and inside of the Monastery of San Benito is overwhelming. Don't expect to find the sobriety and simplicity of the building's exterior once you go through the doors. You'll encounter a world of careful and elaborate designs that evoke a universe in which the pilasters, columns and even the ceilings are decorated with shapes and lines that reflect the horror vacui so typical of the Brazilian Baroque, especially due to the use of gold leaf. The designs, paintings and wood carvings were produced by the same monks and the level of detail is so exquisite that today the whole thing is regarded as one of the best examples of art in Brazil.
One of the greatest assets of San Benito is the image of the Virgin of Montserrat by Friar Domingos da Conceiçao, a black European virgin to whom the Monastery of San Benito is devoted. Also worth highlighting are the statue of Santa Scholastica, the sister of San Benito, another work by Fray Domingos da Conceiçao, the Baroque doors to the main nave and the silver candelabra that years ago lit the interior of the monastery. Head to the most sacred part of the church, the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Inside you'll come across a good example of Rococo art in Rio.
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