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Exploring Macau’s Colonial Heritage: The Ruins of St Paul’s

By Tiffany Tong 27 August 2020

Header image courtesy of Anka Yura (Pexels)

If you know anything about Hong Kong’s smaller sister city, Macau, it’s not hard to see why words like ‘casino’ and ‘gambling’ are often used in reference to the place. After all, Macau didn’t become known as the “gambling capital of the world” for nothing. There’s no surprise that its bright neon lights and swanky modern casinos—with the added bonus of being the only place in China where gambling is legal—has made it a popular destination for tourists. But that isn’t all that Macau is—here is also a rich history and background.

Located on top of a small hill in the parish of Santo António, which resides in the western portion of the Macau peninsula, stands one of the city’s most iconic landmark: the Ruins of St Paul’s. Even after centuries since its construction, the ruins still continue to enchant tourists, especially since it is listed as one of the Seven Wonders of Portuguese Origin in the World.

As of 2005, it is also part of the historic centre of Macau, otherwise a UNESCO World Heritage site. As a key reminder of Macau’s past colonial legacy, this place is a must-see for anyone visiting—especially if you are a history fan. This example of old Macau has a completely different vibe than the flashiness of the casinos.

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The Ruins were initially constructed from 1602 to 1640 as part of a larger site containing what was originally St Paul’s College as well as the Church of St Paul—otherwise known as “Mater Dei” in Latin (Façade of our Lady Mother of God). Founded by the Society of Jesus (otherwise known as Jesuits), the grand seventeenth-century religious complex was once one of the largest Catholic churches in Asia at the time. Praised as “The Vatican of the Far East,” the goal of St Paul’s College was to educate Jesuit missionaries who were travelling to China, Japan, and other places in the far East. It was not long before Macau became a base for the spreading of Christianity in China and in Japan.

Unfortunately, as Macau began to decline in its importance, the fortune of the building soon followed suit, with a fire during a typhoon in 1835 destroying much of the opulent structure. You can see what remains today—just the southern granite façade, the crypts of the Jesuits who established and maintained the building, and the 68 stone steps leading up to the site.

Although it is widely alleged that architect Father Carlo Spinola, an Italian Jesuit, designed the building, the rumours have never been fully confirmed. However, there is one thing that most historians agree on, and that is the church’s design is impressively unique.

Despite it being baroque, the façade also includes a combination of both Jesuit and Oriental themes and symbols. These motifs include biblical images, Chinese characters, chrysanthemums, six Chinese lions, a Portuguese ship, and bronze statues of the founding Jesuit saints. It has also been noted that certain elements seem to resemble late sixteenth-century churches from Europe. With the façade’s overall composition embodying a mixture of global, regional, and local influences, it can be said that the Ruins of St Paul’s functions symbolically as an altar to Macau, thus highlighting the city’s exceptional universal significance.

As part of Catholic doctrine, the Virgin Mary is one of the central figures of the façade. Standing with her hands folded across her chest with carvings of angels surrounding her, she, therefore, embodies the virtues of compassion, grace, and purity. This fits in with Catholicism’s veneration of Mary, as she is seen as “Mother of God” (Theotokos).

On the eastern side of the construction, a carving of Mary displays her as stepping on a seven-headed dragon, with the Chinese inscription beside it translating to “Holy Mother tramples the heads of the dragon.” The seven heads each represent one of the seven deadly sins and the Chinese inscription helps visitors (and locals) to better understand religious metaphors. By blending Asian cultural codes harmoniously into its design, the Ruins of St Paul’s are truly one of a kind.

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In the 1990s, the ruins were eventually excavated and restored by the Macanese government, who then turned it into a museum. Additionally, this was around the time where numerous priceless religious and cultural artefacts were also discovered within the foundations and crypts. In order to strengthen the dangerously leaning structure, the façade is now buttressed with concrete and steel. Moreover, the support also helps to maintain its aesthetic integrity, which has lasted to this day.

The steel staircase at the rear of the façade allows tourists to climb to the top of the structure so they can get a closer look at the stone carvings. It’s also a great spot to get a panoramic view overlooking the city below. Recently, there is a tradition that encourages visitors to throw coins into the top window of the ruins from the stairs for good luck.

If you still want more things to do, then you can go check out the Museum of Sacred Art and Crypt. Built in the inner area of the ruins in 1996, the museum includes highlights such as the remains of a tomb—most likely belonging to the founder of St Paul’s College, Father Alexander Valignano.

Along the sidewalls, there are also relics of Japanese and Vietnamese martyrs. Artefacts of high historical and artistic value litter the place, like Sino-Portuguese crucifixes, sacred paintings of St Francis, as well as a seventeenth-century oil painting of St Archangel Michael. Remarkably, it is the only work of the College that miraculously survived the fire in 1835. Be sure to remember operating hours are from 9 am to 6 pm, with no admission after 5.30 pm. On Tuesdays, the museum closes at 2 pm instead.

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Tiffany Tong


Raised in Hong Kong and educated abroad, Tiffany is a recent Media & Communications graduate from Cardiff University. She has previously written for HiveLife, Earth.Org, and Medium. In her free time when she’s not trying to meet deadlines, you can often find her reading, creating digital illustrations, or geeking out about her favourite characters online.