By Martina Merlo
Cristo Redentor, also known in English as Christ the Redeemer, is not an ordinary monument of religious iconography— he has become more a representative of the city of Rio as a whole, than just a single denomination.
While standing alone as the icon for not only a global city but also for all its global events and for the nation that surrounds it, Cristo Redentor also bears several similarities to another symbol of national identity.
The Statue of Liberty was first built in the 1880s as a gift from France to the United States. She stands as a robed figure in Liberty Island, viewable from many sites in Manhattan—though with increasing difficulty regarding the constructions on the large island. The Statue of Liberty represents, well, liberty. More specifically, she represents the unifying principle of the United States upon her erection around the centennial of the Nation’s birth. Her representation of an entire country manifests itself in many ways, but it is quite notable that her status as a pagan goddess almost has no bearing on American culture, other than her name and what it represents.
Lady Liberty is the goddess of Libertas. This is a notion of great importance (and controversy) in US self-representations. Though its meaning and reach is constantly debated— as in the Revolution, struggles for abolition of slavery, the suffragette’s movement, and again in the Civil Rights movement— the word itself is recognized as a value. Lady Liberty also is ubiquitous. She is the first view seen from Ellis Island, from which immense amounts of immigrants poured into New York; it also stands as a symbolic reminder not only this small (but quite packed) city, but New York— city which is at times made to stand in for the US as a whole (as was particularly the case after 9/11). Additionally, from an art historical standpoint, Lady Liberty dons robes of the neoclassical style. Neoclassicism was the prevalent style under which civic buildings were built in the 19th century. Neoclassicism was another unifying and standardizing principle of the United States that brought the people together under new laws (with Greek and Roman precedents).
With this North American premise put into place, we can look carefully at the iconography of Corcovado and Cristo Redentor. Corcovado is the highest mountain in Rio, providing a 360 degree view from its incredibly steep peak over the entire city. Before the development of the city, it overlooked unaltered landscapes of lush vegetation.
It had become a point from which Portuguese settlers observed their land from above, and soon became the site of a large wooden cross, symbolizing the devout Catholicism of these settlers (History in 1 Click). A combination of imperial ownership and Christian piety. Understanding that Corcovado and the exaggerated and unusual topography of Rio provided views of beaches, vegetation, geological wonders, and other beauties that were unheard of in Portugal or any similar landscape of Western Europe, Emperor Pedro II built a railroad to the peak of the mountain to make the panorama it offered more widely available. Similarly to the commercialization of Samba, Carnaval, and its transformation into a symbol of “Brazilianess”, the railroad allowed for standardization of travel in Rio but also allowed for commercialization of tourism.
The exponential growth and development of Rio allowed for several iterations of different styles to coexist all at once, but it was evident that the Beaux Arts style was incredibly popular, especially with the advent of radiating boulevards and the creation of civic structures. The earlier unifying principle for the United States was neoclassical, while Rio in the late 19th century borrowed from the French. So, the Cristo statue was conceived in a similar vein. Pierre Marie Boss, a French chaplain in Rio, first had the inspiration to create a monument atop the highest peak (History in 1 Click). Several artists entered the competition for the monument, but in the end Brazilian artist Heitor da Silva Costa won the commission and allowed a French-Polish engineer, Paul Landowski to build the 90-meter monument.
Assembled in the early 1920s, this Cristo is designed in a way very characteristic of the Art Deco style. He, too, stands as a robed figure with even more ubiquity around the city than the Statue of Liberty in New York (simply because, as previously mentioned, the topography of Rio allows for this high peak to be viewed from 360 degrees).
Though he connotes devotion to Catholicism—and echoes the patron saints on view at intersections and public spaces throughout Rio, as well as the shrine we saw as the founding settlement of Santa Marta Favela– he too has become an icon for Rio, Brazil, and for greater Latin America. I would not go so far as to say Christ has become secular, but his robes parallel those of Lady Liberty and represent the city and nation as much as they represent a specific religious meaning.
Just as Lady Liberty was created in the style that was becoming standard in civic structures in the US at the time, Cristo Redentor was more mannered. It symbolizes one style out of many that had been imposed on Rio from the top-down. But these styles also became uniquely Brazilian in their juxtaposition with other styles and their unique iterations.
Cristo was a gift from France, in a way, and yet was swallowed by Brazilians to become an overarching symbol of the land. A religious icon, Christ could stand for devotion in any European country, but Cristo Redentor, in the Art Deco style, on Corcovado mountain, displays a work of Brazilian development, tourism, land admiration, unity, and of course a nod to the founding religion and architectural influences of the city of Rio.
Upon our own visit to this unifying icon, I found it interesting that such an attraction only seemed to bring tourists from within Brazil, aside from one or two Southeast Asian families (and us, of course). While Cristo holds such strong ties to France, like much of Rio does, and draws highly evident parallels to the United States, specifically in relation to Lady Liberty, it seems that his unifying power is primarily aimed at and reaches Brazil and not too far beyond. Our journey to the top of the Cristo involved many ticket booths, van transfers, and really only advanced when I would ask questions in broken Portuguese because not even the tourism companies spoke anything but Portuguese. It seemed to me that Cristo Redentor, a statue with influences taken from elsewhere and then devoured and processed into a purely Brazilian artifact is in fact exclusively Brazilian as well.
“History in 1 Click – Sanctuary of Christ the Redeemer.” History in 1 Click – Sanctuary of Christ the Redeemer. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.