A Traveler's Guide to Bonfim Church

Bonfim Church

 Patricia Ribeiro

Situated on a vantage point atop a knoll in Cidade Baixa (Lower Salvador), the Good Lord of Bonfim Church is a welcome sight in the city's horizons. 

The popular tourist attraction is going through a busy season since Salvador received 40,000 tourists in the first phase of the 2014 World Cup. Some of them might have made a wish or two for their team's sake.

The history of 18th-century Senhor Bom Jesus do Bonfim Sanctuary Basilica, also referred to as Nosso Senhor do Bonfim Church or simply Bonfim Church started with faith in miracles. Caught in a severe storm at sea, Portuguese Navy captain Theodózio Rodrigues de Faria vowed that if he survived, he would bring an image of the saint of his devotion to Brazil.

Ever since a replica of an image of crucified Christ revered in the captain's native Setúbal, in Portugal, was placed in the church in the mid-19th-century, the church atop the Sacred Knoll (Colina Sagrada) has been a site of pilgrimage, sought by people hoping for miracles. A room to the right of the nave lined with ex-votos and myriad wallet-size photos of the grateful is one of the highlights at this attractive church in Rococo style.

In 1773, when slaves were ordered to wash the church's steps for the celebration of Bom Jesus do Bonfim, two Sundays after Epiphany, a new custom was born. The Washing of the Steps (Lavagem do Bonfim), held on the second Thursday after Epiphany, is a highlight of Bahia syncretism, in which rituals of Afro-Brazilian blend with Catholic traditions.

Since slaves were forbidden from engaging in candomblé rites, they masked them as Catholic observances and associating their deities with Catholic counterparts. Bom Jesus do Bonfim corresponds to Oxalá - an orixá, or candomblé deity, strongly associated with the creation of the world and a peaceful ending to life, filled with accomplishment - a good ending, or bom fim.

Photos taken during a press trip to Salvador by invitation of Bahiatursa. About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.

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Wish Ribbons at Bonfim Church

Wish Ribbons
Patricia Ribeiro

The wish ribbons tied to the gate of the Bonfim Church and sold by the dozen in front of the church to be tied around one's wrist are a famous symbol of Bahia, ubiquitous in art and fashion - and yet another manifestation of Afro-Brazilian syncretism.

At first made of cotton and always measuring 47 centimeters long, just like the right arm of the statue of Jesus Christ at the church's main altar, the ribbons were worn around the neck, at times with little votive charms, as a sign of gratefulness for a grace received.

,As they started being produced industrially outside Bahia State (not necessarily with the original length), they took on colors symbolically related to orixás and became wish ribbons, or simply one of the most popular souvenirs from Salvador, with the inscription "Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia" (lembrança means "memento").    

The wish is supposed to be made while the ribbon is tied with three knots; if tied around the wrist, the ribbon is supposed to have been received as a gift, not tied on by the wearer, and to be left on until it falls off by itself, which can take several months.

Vendors, inevitably stationed outside the church, swarm around tourists offering a single ribbon as a gift and trying to sell their bundles, usually with a dozen ribbons in assorted colors.

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Bonfim Church Interior

Patricia Ribeiro

Less ostentatious than some other 18th-century churches in Brazil, heavily ornamented in goldleaf, the Senhor Bom Jesus do Bonfim Church interior has its share of luster, including elaborately worked silver objects, as well as several notable paintings by Bahian artists.

Salvador-born artist Franco Velasco (1780—1883) created the nave ceiling depicting shipwreck survivors expressing their gratitude to Our Lord of Bonfim. On the narthex ceiling, an image of Mary holding her baby poses a gentle contrast to the whole.

According to Salvador Cultura Todo Dia by the Gregório de Mattos Foundation, the paintings representing scenes from the Way of the Cross at the six side altars are also by Velasco. The sacristy and aisle paintings are by José Teófilo de Jesus (1758-1847).

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Blue and White Tile Murals at Bonfim Church

Patricia Ribeiro

Rooms on each side of the Bonfim Church nave hold a striking series of murals in blue and white Portuguese tiles portraying scenes from Christ's life. As of this writing, the start of restoration work on the murals has been announced.

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