St Francis Church - Igreja de Sao Francisco

This is not to be missed. I do not normally like visiting churches but this one is impressive. The ceiling and walls are covered in hand carved wooden decorative panels and figures of saints. I have never seen so much wood carving on one building. The unusual catacombs are another reason to visit the church.

St Francis Church exterior

Outside the entrance to St Francis Church - Igreja de Sao Francisco

Saint Francis Church is near the western end of the Ribeira river front in Porto, opposite the last vintage Tram stop on the Rua do Infante Dom Henrique. It is open every day. From the street, it is easy to see the big south facing wall of the main church building, with its Gothic pointed arches and windows.

 You will find the entrance on the western end under a large stone rosette window. A multi level granite staircase leads up to the main door. Stop on the terrace and look around you. You are quite high above the river level and you get a great panoramic view of the boats on the water and the river side houses.

Enter the door to the left to purchase you entrance ticket. Do not be put off by having to pay to go into this church. You will not be disappointed. The ticket covers entrance to the small museum, the clergy meeting rooms and the catacombs. Above the main door is a statue of St Francis.

The stark gothic plainness of the main church building's exterior contrasts dramatically with the ornate neo-classical inspired church buildings next to it. it is a real shock when you step through those big doors. The sumptuous, over the top, baroque style wood carving decoration assaults you eyes. You do not know where to look first.

The hours and hours of work, skilled carpenters took to create this wooden masterpiece is amazing. It would have kept these local craftsmen in work for many years. It could only be paid for by the arrival of the gold ships from Brazil in the 16th century and donations from wealth merchants and members of the aristocracy who wanted to grantee a place in heaven for themselves and their family.

St Francis Church interior

Inside St Francis Church - Igreja de Sao Francisco

A lot of the wooden carving, baroque columns, alters and ledges are gilded with gold paint and leaf. It has been estimated that 650 pounds of gold was used in the decoration of the interior of Saint Francis' Church of Porto.

The Franciscan Monks arrived in Porto in the early 1200s and started building their church in 1223. A convent was also constructed at the rear of the church but that was destroyed in a fire in 1832 during the Portuguese Liberal Wars and the siege of Porto. (The neo-classical old Stock Exchange building, the Palacio da Bolsa, now occupies that site.) The original church was replaced by a much grander building in 1425.

St Francis Church carved wooden roof

The ornate carved wooden ceiling of St Francis Church - Igreja de Sao Francisco

In 1809 Napoleon's troops invaded Portugal and captured Porto. The French Calvary officers decided that the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi would be an ideal location to billet their men and their horses. A local legend tells the story of the monks and parishioners hurriedly painting white washing over the gold decorated interior fittings when they heard about the invasion, to prevent them being destroyed and looted by the French.

It was only after the British Army under Wellington pushed the French out of Portugal and back to France did the Church return to its glory and the white wash removed. In 1910 the Church was classified as a National Monument. In 1996 UNESCO recogised it as an important historic building and declared it a World Heritage Site.

St Francis Church carved wooden figures

On the north wall is the Tree of Jesse, a sculpture illustrating the lineage of Christ. The Tree, in gilded and painted wood. It was carved between 1718 and 1721.

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