Two centuries ago the vermilion hills north of Rio de Janeiro were black with men digging for gold. At the height of the California-size boom, the rich towns of Minas Geraes (**) built resplendent churches, lavished fortunes on their adornment.
Near the hillside hamlet of Congonhas do Campo at that time lived the mulatto son of a Portuguese carpenter. His real name was Antonio Francisco Lisboa, but men called him Aleijadinho (Little Cripple) and knew that he had a mysterious disease which had left him hideous, broken and bent. But disease could not cripple Aleijadinho's genius for building great and gorgeous baroque churches and filling them with sculptured figures of beauty and power unparalleled in Brazil before or since.
Time has been unkind to the gold towns of Minas Geraes. Their old wealth is long since gone; the red dust of Minas cakes their half-deserted streets. But Aleijadinho's heroic monuments remain. Each year in mid-September, Mineiros rise from their huts and hamlets and journey by foot, by truck and by train over the scarred hills to the shrine-church of Congonhas do Campo. In 2006, as they have for a century and a half, some 200,000 Brazilian peasants made the pilgrimage to kiss the sacred image of the Dead Christ in Aleijadinho's Church of the Bom Jesus.
No Beds at the Inn. In its little valley, Congonhas seethed more in carnival than worship. Trucks rumbled in to disgorge batches of 40 white-suited pilgrims. Faint after bumping over the rough roads, the country folk pressed into the stalls along the Rua Feliciano Mendes for coffee. Because a big-time operator from Belo Horizonte had rented every room in town and sublet them to prostitutes at $10 a day, the pilgrims slept in the streets, in the churchyard or in trucks.
From cluttered counters at the curbs, salesmen chanted: "Chega aqui, chega aqui" (stop here, stop here). Grinning Mineiros bought spun candy, tapir skins, plastic belts, holy pictures, soccer balls, coconut-milk gum. By the thousands they surged across the little bridge over the Maranhão River, and milled up the three-quarter-mile hill in sluggish serpentine. The town bank advertised: "We change money for alms."
Soapstone Prophets. Every so often the pilgrims came to special areas filled with beggars wearing individual license numbers issued by municipal authorities. In the big romaria (pilgrimage) section alone, a thousand beggars wailed.
Atop the hill, Aleijadinho's church stood in isolated splendor, its 16 soapstone prophets jutting above the buttresses. Here carnival melted away in the solemnity of the shrine. The pilgrims swarmed reverently past six little white buildings housing the sculptor's Stations of the Cross. They fell into two lines. Some shielded lit candles as they waited; most lit their candles as they entered the church.
A Kiss for Bom Jesús. Inside, they moved forward past the gold and white side altars, past the two ornamented Aleijadinho pulpits. The only sound was the soft scuffing of sandaled feet. Reaching the altar, the pilgrims handed their candles to a priest, kissed the recumbent image of Bom Jesús, dropped their offerings in a box beside the altar. Some paused to honor the old tradition of "measuring" the figure with a piece of white binding tape that would later hang in their huts as a souvenir. Then they went back to the dusty hill towns that had seen nothing new since the gold boom had passed and Aleijadinho, his chisel lashed to the stump of a rotting arm, had hewn his greatest monument.
The Michelangelo of Brazil
The landlocked state of Minas Gerais, a gold-rich mountainous region east of Rio de Janeiro, provided the most fertile setting for the development of a true "Brazilian" Baroque school. It was here that a local artist who became known as "the Michelangelo of Brazil" spent the latter part of the 18th century and the first decade of the 19th creating many Baroque masterpieces. The son of a Portuguese father and an African mother, Aleijadinho exhibited a creative genius that has been compared with that of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.
The highly expressive character of his sculptures, generally attributed to the influence of his mother's African culture, transcended the strict formality of the European school. Aleijadinho's riveting sculptures are renowned for having elastic facial features endowed with an air of theatricality and strong, accentuated individual characteristics - traits that endow them with the unmistakable stamp of Brazilian cultural identity.
"I believe that Mexican and Peruvian Baroque art, the other great Latin American schools in the 17th and 18th centuries, are heavily invested on the dark side of spirituality," comments art historian Edward J. Sullivan of New York University, "while the Brazilians tended to lighten things quite considerably. That isn't to say that much of the Brazilian work is not dramatic as well. However, color is used in a very different way in Brazil, where it is lighter and often pastel."
* Fabio Magalhães is the curator of the exhibition Aleijadinho and His Times
** The spelling used in the period.
Aleijadinho and His Times
Through February 11, 2007
Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Banco do Brasil Cultural Center, Rio de Janeiro
Rua Primeiro de Março 66
Rio de Janeiro, RJ
Telephone: +(55-21) 3808-2020
March 10-June 10, 2007
Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Banco do Brasil Cultural Center, Brasília
SCES, Trecho 02, lote 22
Telephone: +(55-61) 3310-7087
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