Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian

By Sean Turner and Lindsay Wong

The Cathedral Metropolitana, also known as Rio de Janeiro’s Cathedral, was built from 1964 to 1979. Edgar Fonseca, a student of Oscar Niemeyer, was the architect and the engineers were Newton Sotto Major and Joaquim Correa. This modern cathedral is the most recent replacement of a series of national cathedrals to serve as the seat of the Archdiocese since 1676. The preceding cathedral was the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel of the Ancient See, which was declared in the early 19th century. The difference between the Cathedral Metropolitana and its predecessors is that it does not follow the traditional architecture of churches.

As stated before, Cathedral Metropolitana is modern compared to the previous Cathedrals. Located in the center of the city, its overall form is conical shaped. The cathedral’s size makes it very hard to go unnoticed. Its external diameter is 106 meters while its internal diameter is 96 meters. Its height is 75 meters. The inside area is 8,000 square meters and its standing room capacity is 20,000 people. The form of the Cathedral relates to the Mayan architecture of the pyramids, except for the fact that they have a square base. According to Cathedral Metropolitana’s main website, the conical form, signifies, “equidistance and proximity of the people in relation to God” [1].

From the exterior, viewers only see the concrete form. However, the interior of the cathedral offers much more. A Greek cross dominates the ceiling and offers a skylight for the interior. The light that falls through the four arms of the cross conveys God falling from the heights to come out to men (reference). Another cross hovers a few feet above the high altar, supported by a few steel cables. It can go almost unnoticed in contrast to the modern concrete structure because it is made out of wood. Another huge architectural characteristic are the four large glass painted windows that stretch from the top of the structure to right above the entrances. The themes/content in the four windows represents the Church’s Four Marks: Una, Santa, Catholic and Apostolic. Because of its size and architecture, the Cathedral Metropolitana creates a unifying environment. With references to Catholicism in every aspect of the structure, it subconsciously imposes religion on the visitors. The cathedral is still visited and used today.

The current form of the Cathedral of San Sebastian is an indicator of the adoption of new intellectual and theological norms which dictate how the people of Brazil perceive their own modernity. The history of this site alone speaks to the complexity of the ideologies influencing the state of Brazil’s religious center and the seat of power for the diocese. This dominion is represented through the prominent architectural style of the modern cathedral. However, additional, the original cathedral built on this location in 1676 under the rule of Pope Innocent XI marked a new era of Catholic influence for the area. This was because prior to this first iteration of the Cathedral of San Sebastian the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro had no centralized building and instead had to rely on borrowing local churches. It should also be noted that it was during 1676 when the first cathedral was built that that it was elevated to the status of a diocese, while it had previous only existed as a territorial prelature since 19 July 1575. The cathedral would transfer to the Holy Cross of Military in 1734 for only three years and would later move to Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Benedict of Black Men. This site would be supplanted in 1808 by Our Lady of Carmel Church with the arrival of the Royal Family. This remained the main cathedral of the Archdiocese until the introduction of the Metropolitan Cathedral in 1964-1979 when it was being built. [1]

The significance of the form that this cathedral takes moves beyond just the aesthetic brilliance of its massive conical shape, but actually is representative of a larger world philosophy. The idea of “metropolitan,” in fact, is a central illustration of this ideal. In terms of religious history, the metropolitan bishop was the highest achievable level of bishop in the episcopal system before the introduction of the patriarch system circa 325 AD. The idea of the “metropolitan” merely represented the notion of an area under the rule or protection of the Church. However, modernity has seen a shift in this meaning from the pious to the urban with “metropolitan” adopting an ideology of the modern city. 

Through this image of the new cathedral we can see the merging of these two conceptions both architecturally and philosophically as the physical and metaphysical forms of the structure blend together the ancient and the modern while also failing to blend into the urban scene. The structure itself stands out as a monumental image of ancient power coupled with modern industry. The pyramid-like shape is arresting while the interior features stained glass and a massive skylight which welcomes the light of God. This clash of ideals is representative of the turmoil experienced by Brazil throughout much of its history as it struggles to identify itself.

The cathedral was built during period where Brazil was undergoing a lot of political pressure. 
Another historical context is Rio’s Museum of Modern Art was completed in 1964. The building was constructed during the last decade of Brazil’s rule under military dictatorship, led by Jescelino Kubitschek, elected in 1955. In 1961, the government relocated Brazil’s capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia. This move illustrates Brazil’s desire to shift away from European colonial influence along the coast and focus on the domestic instability.  In addition, there was the individual ambition to project its identity by projecting its global image into the technological age. As a result, the 1960s marked major development for Rio’s modern architecture and ambition as a global identity. Kubitschek commissioned Neimeyer to design the urban plan for Brasilia. Simultaneously, many modern structures were built in Rio de Janeiro.

The centrality of the cathedral represents its accessibility and universality as an emblem of the lived experiences of its visitors and Brazil’s national religious image. Presently situated at the heart of Rio’s metro system as well as the city itself, the Cathedral’s location is easily reachable for many of Rio’s citizens. However, this accessibility also entails an obligation for the Cathedral to indulge different Christian denominations. Three-quarters of Brazil’s population is Roman Catholic. The other main churches are Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Protestant and Pentecostal. This speaks to the universality that the Cathedral represents through its four ideological pillars. These Four Marks, Una (One), Santa (Holy), Catholic, and Apostolic, are the most important affirmations of Christian faith. The fact that the cathedral is in the center and enforces the Four Marks, seen in the stain glass, illustrates how it appeases to all denomination of Christianity in Brazil as well as the world.

Works Cited:

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