Igreja do Bonfim
Sacred to Catholics as well as followers of Candomblé (for whom Senhor do Bonfim is equated with both Christ and one of the most important orixás, Oxalá), the Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim is an important pilgrimage site. Morning mass is large, especially on Fridays—Oxalá’s day of the week. Even before you arrive at the gleaming church, you’ll be able to see it: Splendidly rising up from a hilltop and accessorized by swaying imperial palms, it’s an eye-catching example of Portuguese rococo architecture.
Upon your arrival at the pretty cobblestoned Largo do Bonfim, you’ll likely be accosted by a few vendors plying you with brightly colored fitas de Bonfim (Bonfim ribbons). If you choose to follow tradition and tie one around your wrist, make sure you tie three knots and make a wish on each one. Having done so, you’ll be stuck wearing it for weeks, months, or even years (for this reason, don’t tie it too tight), and when it naturally falls off, your wishes will come true.
With the exception of the resplendent panels of blue-and-white Portuguese tiles, the interior of the church is relatively unadorned by Bahian standards. The real interest lies in its importance to Bahians, which becomes clear when you visit the church’s small but fascinating Museu dos Ex-Votos do Senhor do Bonfim (Largo do Bonfim, tel. 71/3312-4512, 9 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Tues.–Sat., R$2).
Your visit begins in the Sala dos Milagres (Room of Miracles), whose walls are covered from floor to ceiling with thousands of photographs and handwritten notes accompanied by fitas. Whether or not you understand Portuguese, these heart-felt supplications to Senhor do Bonfim—be it pleading for the life of a child, the safe return of a fisherman, or even victory in a soccer championship—are incredibly moving.
So are the photos, newspaper clippings, and paintings of miracles: depicting believers being saved from tragedies such as car accidents and fires. Meanwhile, dangling from the ceiling are wooden and plastic heads, limbs, and even organs such as hearts and lungs. These are the offerings of worried patients seeking protection before surgery.
The second floor houses older and more precious ex-votos in display cases, including silver heads, arms, hearts, eyes, noses—even livers and intestines offered in thanks by miraculously cured patients. The presence of soccer uniforms indicates that both of Salvador’s major teams wouldn’t dream of starting futebol season without first visiting the church for a blessing.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition