The Baroque style arrived in Brazil by the hand of its colonisers, above all, the Portuguese, both lay and religious, reaching its full expression in the 18th century, a hundred years after it emerged in Europe, and extending to the first two decades of the 19th century. As a style, it represents an amalgam of various Baroque tendencies, not only Portuguese but also French, Italian and Spanish ones. This mixture was accentuated in secular workshops that proliferated over the course of the century, in which Portuguese masters joined forces with the Brazil-born sons of Europeans and their half-caste descendents to realise some of the most beautiful works of the Brazilian baroque. It may be said that this amalgam of popular and erudite elements produced by the guilds of craftsmen helped to rejuvenate various styles within Brazil, reviving, for example, forms of the late German Gothic in the work of Aleijadinho (1730-1814). The movement reached its artistic peak from 1760 onwards, principally in the Rococo variant of the Baroque in Minas Gerais.
During the 17th century, the Church played an important role as patron of colonial art. The various religious orders (Benedictine, Carmelite, Franciscan and Jesuit) that established themselves within Brazil from the mid-16th century onwards, developed a sober and often monumental religious architecture, with rectilinear façades and plans of great ornamental simplicity, in accordance with European Mannerist tastes. It was only when the lay associations (guilds, brotherhoods and third orders) took the leading role in sponsoring art during the 18th century, at a time when the religious orders experienced a decline in their power, that the Baroque flowered into regional schools, above all in the Northeast and Southeast of the country. Having said this, the first manifestation of Baroque features, even if mixed with Gothic and Romanesque styles, may be found in the missionary art of the Sete Povos das Missões [Seven Peoples of the Missions] in the basin of the River Plate. For a century and a half, a process of artistic synthesis was developed by the Guarani Indians, based on European models taught by missionary priests. The buildings of these peoples were almost entirely destroyed, with the most important ruins consisting of the mission of São Miguel, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
The first manifestations of the Baroque spirit elsewhere in the country are present in façades and pediments, albeit principally in the decoration of a number of churches that also date from the middle of the 17th century. Gilded Baroque woodcarving in the Portuguese style spread through the Igreja e Mosteiro de São Bento [Church and Monastery of St. Benedict] in Rio de Janeiro, built between 1633 and 1691. The motifs of foliage, the multitude of cherubs and birds and the dynamic figure of the Virgin on the main altar piece, project a Baroque environment within a classical architecture. Baroque vegetation was introduced into Bahia at the end of the 17th century in the decoration of e.g. the former Igreja dos Jesuítas [Church of the Jesuits] and current Catedral Basília [Cathedral Basilica Church], whose main chapel, with its bunches of grapes, tropical birds and flowers and cherubs dates from 1665-70. Notable in Recife is the so-called Capela Dourada ou Capela dos Noviços [Golden Chapel or Chapel of the Novices] of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi, designed at the peak of the economic boom of Pernambuco in 1696, and completed in 1724.
Between 1700 and 1730, foliage in sculpted stone tended to proliferate over façades, in imitation of the altar pieces, in accordance with the logic of Baroque ornamentation. In 1703, a striking dynamism took over the exterior for the first time with a façade in the Plateresque style of the Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência [Church of the Third Order of St. Francis the Penitent], in Salvador. At the same time, it should be noted that this exuberance represents an exception to the Brazilian Baroque, since even during its golden age, local Baroque churches, like those in Portugal, are characterised by the contrast between the relative simplicity of their exteriors and their rich interior decorations, so as to symbolise the virtue of contemplation, a requirement of the Christian soul. These first three decades marked the spread throughout Brazil of the 'National Portuguese' style, without major regional variations.
At this point, a new development cycle of the Baroque emerged between the mid-1730s and 1760, with the predominance of the Joanine Portuguese style, whose origins lay in the Roman Baroque. There is a significant Baroque influence on architecture, with the construction of polygonal naves and plans in interwoven ellipses. Of note during this period, and with subsequent resonances, is the work of the Portuguese artists, Manuel de Brito and Francisco Xavier de Brito.
It should be noted that in the mid-18th century, the loss of political and economic force initiated a certain period of stagnation in the Northeast, with the exception of Pernambuco, which experienced the Rococo style during the second half of the century. At this point, the focus shifted to Rio de Janeiro, nominated capital of the colony in 1763, as well as Minas Gerais, which had developed as a result of the discovery of gold (1695) and diamonds (c. 1730). It is not by chance that two of the greatest artists of the Brazilian Baroque were working precisely during this period: Mestre Valentim (ca.1745-1813), in Rio de Janeiro, and Aleijadinho, around Ouro Preto.
It is in the softness of the Rococo style of Minas Gerais (from 1760 onwards) that the Brazilian Baroque found its most original expression. The extreme popular religious sentiment, under the exclusive patronage of lay associations, is expressed in a contained and elegant spirit, generating harmonious and dynamic temples with architectural circular planes and gracious decoration in soapstone. Monumental constructions are definitively replaced by intimate temples of simple dimensions and refined decoration that is more appropriate to the spirituality and material condition of the people of the region.
One of the most polished examples of this style may be seen in the Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco de Assis da Penitência (1767) [Church of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi the Penitent], whose plan, frontispiece, side and main altar pieces, pulpit and font are by Aleijadinho. The illusionistic painting of the ceiling of the nave is by one of the most talented Baroque painters, Manoel da Costa Athaide (1762-1830). Also of note is the partnership between the two artists in the polychrome wooden sculptures (1796-1799), representing the Passos da Paixão de Cristo [Stations of the Cross] for the Santuário de Bom Jesus dos Matosinhos [sanctuary of Bom Jesus dos Matosinhos], in Congonhas do Campo. In the churchyard of this sanctuary, Aleijadinho left the most eloquent testimony to his artistic talent, his 12 Prophets in soapstone (1800-1805).
In Rio de Janeiro, the Portuguese presence was stronger, with the city distinguishing itself from others by its tendency towards Neoclassical sobriety, reinforced by the influence within Brazil of the reforms of the Marquis of Pombal. The civic (e.g. the Passeio Público [Public Promenade], of 1779-1785 and the Chafariz da Pirâmide [Pyramid Fountain] of 1789) and sacred art of Mestre Valentim, strikes the perfect balance between the rational postulates of Classicism, the dynamics and hyperbole of the Baroque and a certain sense of preciousness and delicacy of the Rococo aesthetic, thereby synthesising brilliantly the spirit of art in Rio de Janeiro during the second half of the 18th century.