Monday, October 4, 2010

The Mysteries of the Mater Dei

I was rubbing my hands together in anticipation and excitement as I sat here thinking about writing this post. I should have gone into anthropology or archeology or apoplexy - well, I kind of did that when I spotted the topic of this blog. As I told you in my previous entry, I visited Macau last week - a little island off mainland China that was ruled by the Portuguese until 1999. I checked out Frommer's recommended spots and saved what I was sure would be the best, for last. And it did not disappoint: the Ruins of St. Paul's.

If you are not into history or relics or details of details, you might want to skip on to something else. (May I recommend an activity very similar to Chatroulette (but not as um, racey?) Look up at the top of your Blogger Screen. One of the tabs is "Next Blog."  If you click on it, Blogger just randomly takes you to another blog. Word of caution: IT IS ADDICTIVE. Have fun! See you next time!)

For those of you still present, let's dig in! Its ridiculous but I'm grinning from ear to ear! Okay, first a picture of our topic:

Yes - there it is, at the top of the steps - you just turn a corner and blam! You almost stop dead in your tracts the first time because its so eerie and holy and relic-y. So, after crawling all over this place, I found a little souvenir shop that sold a book called, "The Mysteries of the MATER DEI Facade at Macao" by Louis Antonin Berchier. 

Mr. Berchier has been a fan of St. Paul's for many, many years. Let me clear up something here, the words MATER DEI, as you probably know, mean Mother of God - the name of the church face you see here. But the entire group of buildings were called St. Paul's College and this facade is also referred to as the ruins of St. Paul's. In 1994 Mr. Berchier brought binoculars on his visit to St. Paul's and really began to study the facade - its intricate carvings and subtle details. He realized the facade contains quite a bit of symbolism, story-telling and and and - defending of the Catholic creed against the accusations of Martin Luther. What I love about this is the historocity of this monument. The ability of man to tell his story, to defend, explain, imagine over the centuries. Please understand this post neither supports nor defends any particular religion. We are just enjoying the scenery here.

In this picture you can see some of the detail (including some interesting fashion choices). I do have some close ups I'm going to post here as well so you get a sense of the power and impact of these images.

At this point I'm going to turn it over to Mr. Berchier's book and tell you more about this amazing facade. Heat up your coffee and butter up your scone...

* The church was completed in 1603 and the staircase, designed by mathematicians of the Society of Jesus were complete between 1622 and 1640.

*Most of the craftsmen, sculptors and other workers were Chinese and Japanese Catholics. The Japanese Catholics were seeking refuge in Macao from persecutions in their own country.

*The Facade is all made of granite carved by hand.

*In 1537 Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, whose objective was: the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

* It was because of the Reformation that the first missionaries of the Society of Jesus appeared in Macao in 1555, in the steps of Francis Xavier who died three years before on a small island not far from Macao.

* Berchier gives some background on the years the Jesuits lived on Macao, mostly peacefully and in accord with the Chinese government. However, in 1762 the government arrests all the Jesuits and St. Paul's comes under attack and many of its valuables are stolen. A fire in 1835 destroys everything but what you see now standing. In 2005 UNESCO named this facade a World Heritage Monument.

* Over the last 15 years, Berchier did an incredible amount of research into the symbolism of the stairs and facade.  Here are some of his gleanings:

* The Monument has three distinct parts: A base, starting at the bottom of the stairs, forms a square and represents the earthly world of men.  Second is an intermediate horizontal part where the great mysteries linking man to God are represented. Finally, a summit in the form of a triangle, which symbolizes the Divine World. (Yeah - told you this was cool.)  So, now you can go back up to the pictures and get a sense of what he is describing. 

* The great flight of stairs symbolizes the beginning of spiritual ascension - the path to Divine Revelation.

* Berchier reminds us that the early Christian church used something akin to comic strips to tell stories. Think of the stain glassed windows you've seen in Catholic churches - telling stories of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.  Now look at the top of the second storey - pictures going across that tell the viewer a story. 

* Here are parts of the story -

* The ship: it symbolises the difficult journey which the soul of the believer must make to reach salvation. The temptations and dangers that lie in wait for him are represented by the monster-like figures that we see in the waters. Guided by virtue, the ship will arrive at its safe haven.

* This is The Devil. He is represented with the body of a woman (sorry sisters) to symbolise all the passions and temptations that lie in wait for man at every moment. The Chinese inscription means "the Devil tempts man to commit evil." But the Devil is defeated, lying on the ground, his heart pierced by an arrow, representing victory over temptation. 

* And this is a skeleton lying on a scythe - representing Death. Death has also been defeated, pierced by an arrow:

*  If you go back to the larger picture of the facade above, you will see a center statue in the third storey, or the Divine World. This statue is of Jesus as a child to show that he is the Son of God. He points towards Heaven as if to say, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life...."

* At the very top is the image of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit and finally, at the very top of the entire facade is The Cross of Redemption. You might be able to tell it is slightly tilted towards the East...corresponding to the passage from the earthly world to the Divine World.

Of course there is just so much more in Berchier's book! I will go back to this site several times, no doubt and will continue to bring you snippets from the great Facade.  I will also post more pictures of the ruins themselves - there is more to come!

In the mean time, Google images of St. Paul's Macau - you won't be disappointed.  Here is one more shot I got from the side. Somehow I find it just a little unsettling that this thing is just standing real supports, despite centuries, hurricanes and monsoons.


  1. A+ super ... enjoyed with my morning coffee and looked and looked for 'my scone'.. your pictures are also great!

  2. Great pictures! And I really loved the fashion choices, first thing I noticed! :)

  3. Aunt Jean tipped me off to your expertise at writing and said, "you won't be anticipated".... You've got me wanting to visit AND that is all due to your delivery along with the excellent photographs.

  4. don't watch Desperate Housewives and try to type - the word was "disappointed"..... see above post