The 125-foot, concrete statue on a mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro couldn’t appear more straightforward: It’s a giant Jesus with his arms outstretched.
“Christ the Redeemer” – or “Cristo Redentor” – rises almost a half-mile into the Rio sky, and is perhaps the most recognizable Christian image in Latin America.
Yet Cristo’s meaning to Brazilians varies. Some see it as a tribute to Catholicism, while others consider it a salvo against secularism. Still others in the rapidly diversifying country consider it a general symbol of welcome, with arms open wide. One of its original creators called it a “monument to science, art and religion.”
Cristo is an iconic image of Brazil. It is “reproduced everywhere,” read a 2014 BBC feature, “in graffiti art, sand sculptures on Copacabana beach – and even on skin.” During Carnival, there is a street party called Christ’s Armpit, or ‘Suvaco do Cristo,” that weaves its way at the base of the mountain, called Corcovado.
Thomas Tweed, a history professor and Latino Studies Institute fellow at the University of Notre Dame, compared Cristo to the Statue of Liberty – national iconic images that stir debate about what, specifically, they say.
“The statue looms large on the landscape, but it hides as much as it reveals about the diverse religious life of Brazilians,” Tweed said.
When the project began in the 1920s, Brazil was almost entirely Catholic. It made perfect sense for the most ambitious public art project to be funded through the Catholic Church. Until as late as 1970, 92 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholic, according to a Pew Research poll.
But today, Tweed noted, Brazil is “a remarkably diverse religious world.” A quarter of the country is Protestant – mostly evangelical – 10 percent more are unaffiliated, and there is a great deal of blending of faiths and beliefs.
According to the BBC, the original idea for a monument to Christ came from a group of Brazilians who, “in the wake of World War I, feared an advancing tide of Godlessness. Church and state had been separated when Brazil became a republic at the end of the previous century, and they saw the statue as a way of reclaiming Rio – then Brazil’s capital city – for Christianity.”
The foundation stone of the base was ceremonially laid April 4, 1922 – to commemorate the centennial on that day of Brazil’s independence from Portugal. Construction began in 1926 and continued for five years.
Nora Heimann, chair of the Art Department at Catholic University, said Cristo stands out because it is a bridge between the classic European images of Christ on the cross, and more modern, less representational styles. Cristo is the world’s largest Art Deco-style sculpture, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica online.
“This is a triumphant image. Most people describe it as sort of globalization of Christ crucified,” she said, noting that many modern images of Christ don’t even include a cross, whereas in traditional iconography, he was always shown crucified.
Cristo “is striving to be modern in its details,” she said.
Duilia De Mello, a Rio native who teaches at Catholic University, said Cristo is really important for the people of Rio and of Brazil. It sits atop “one of these urban jungles,” she said. To get there one passes through a forest (either by hike, by car or by train).
“That statue is really important for us in Rio and for the people in Brazil. It has a lot of things behind it – not just the religious symbol but this welcoming symbol of open arms. It’s also supposed to mean we are good hosts,” she said.
Despite the religious inspiration behind the statue, it was never seen in “exclusively a religious light,” the BBC feature said.
“It’s a religious symbol, a cultural symbol and a symbol of Brazil,” the BBC quotes Padre Omar, rector of the chapel in the statue’s base. “Christ the Redeemer brings a marvelous vista of welcoming arms to all those who pass through the city of Rio de Janeiro.”