Friday, 1 November 2013

Preview: The Cristo Redentor

Jesus Christ!

Looks good, eh? This, of course, is the Cristo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer, of Rio de Janeiro, sitting aloft the 709-metre-high Corcovado, overlooking and protecting the city. There's no doubt - it takes a mean photo. I mean, wow, look at that. Vast, imposing, iconic, embracing the entire Carioca, a colossal guardian for Brazil. Now, look at this.

Hmm, doesn't look so big now, does it? Ok, perhaps I'm being a little unfair here, but this was a photo I took in 2007 when I was in Brazil for work. 2007 was also the year that the "New 7 Wonders of the World" were announced, and the Cristo Redentor was voted in. Here's the plaque.

Now, instead of repeating myself from six years ago, I'd like to direct you to my old Nev 360 blog, which states my impressions and thoughts very well. It's worth a read. Go, click on it, enjoy the pink colour scheme. In short, I question the validity of the voting system that got a 30-metre-tall reinforced concrete statue built in the 1930s into the Top Seven Wonders of the World over the likes of Easter Island (hundreds of stone heads built 700-900 years ago on a tiny Pacific Island), the Eiffel Tower (tallest structure on Earth for 41 years and probably the most iconic structure ever) or the Empire State Building (completed in the same year, but almost ten times taller and built five times quicker!). What I don't mention then, because it was yet to come, was that the Cristo Redentor, in its own way, inspired me.

I am doing this Wonder quest because of my 2007 visit to Rio's famous statue. Soon after the visit I spent quite a while offshore and it occurred to me - who am I to dispute the New 7 Wonders list? At that time, the Cristo Redentor was the only one I'd seen. Although the millions of voters were unlikely to have visited and been well versed in all 21 candidates, neither was I. By slamming the ignorance of the voting population for choosing a statue I was only semi-impressed by, I was also slamming myself. I was as ignorant as them.

Hence, my Wonder mission. I never imagined it would take on these proportions as I sat offshore, sketching down a list of other great buildings around the world that I felt deserved a hearing. But slowly it occurred to me that to fully refute the choice of the Cristo Redentor as a World Wonder, I would have to study, understand, and visit all the other possible candidates. Then, and only then, could I say with certainty: "These are the real New Wonders of the World, not the Christ statue, and until you go and visit everything too, you can't argue with me."

When I do finally finish this, I would strongly advise avoiding me at parties.

So, poor Cristo Redentor, what sort of introduction is this? I'm supposed to be impartial until after my formal visits, so impartial I will try to be. Because although it may not have the sheer bulk of some of the greatest buildings ever, it has a lot of other sterling qualities: huge fame, striking looks, and absolutely world-class surroundings. Just because I wasn't blown away on a casual visit six years ago, doesn't mean it isn't possessing some rare qualities.

So, let's get to it. What is this statue and why was it built? Well, while I'm sure there is a wealth of detail in Portuguese on it, it's very lacking in English - I can't find a single book at all dedicated to it. But there's enough online to piece together the story. Rio de Janeiro is a fantastic city of beaches, bays, and dramatic peaks, and one of these is called the Corcovado, or the "Hunchback". In 1859, a priest called Pedro Maria Boss decided it would be a good idea to build a monument to Christ upon it. He was the only one. But the idea didn't quite die.

In 1921 it resurfaced, proposed by the Catholic Church of Rio. It would, they said, be the perfect way to celebrate Brazil's 100-year anniversary, a century of independence, due to take place the following year. Big celebrations were planned, and there was renewed enthusiasm for a monument on top of one of their most prominent mountains. By that time, a railway had been built there, making it much more accessible. Petitions were raised, money was raised and pledged, and in April 1922 the foundation stone was laid. But for what?

Nobody actually knew. I have a lovely mental picture of wildly enthusiastic Brazilians getting whipped up into a frenzy over the centenary celebrations and in a collective rush of excitement, laying down the foundation stone on top of the Corcovado before someone stopped the party with the realistion: "But what are we actually building?" But actually, it was clear from the beginning that the monument wouldn't be ready in time for the celebrations, so the foundation stone was just a way of getting the ball rolling, to show commitment to the project. Still, it's a curious thing that construction on the Cristo Redentor started a year before the design competition was even held.

An engineer called Heitor da Silva Costa won. According to his own writings, the cross-shaped open arms of his Christ the Redeemer was inspired by radio antennas with horizontal crossbars, as had been erected on top of the Corcovado for the centenary celebrations. Some dispute this, saying the third-placed entry in the competition had already openly touted the idea of a cross-shaped Jesus. But I think it's a bit rich to suggest Costa copied him: probably, it was just one of these ideas that was hanging in the air, waiting to be used. Indeed, early designs had come from an artist called Carlos Oswaldo, who worked on the statue with Costa, and had sketched images of Christ carrying a globe, on a pedestal, with an alternative design of simply a cross. Quite simply, it was the obvious, the perfect choice.

The real work began in 1926. Apparently, there is a popular misconception among many Brazilians that the Cristo Redentor was a gift from France, being designed and built there before being shipped over for assembly. This appears to be a mix-up with the Statue of Liberty story; however, there was significant French involvement in the project, with some work indeed taking place in France. Costa spent some time there consulting experts on the best way to approach the work, and a Polish-French sculptor called Paul Landowski got on board. He sculpted the plaster casts of the head and hands in France, of which moulds were taken. The moulds and Landowski then went over to Brazil for the actual casts to be made. Incidentally, Landowski also found time during this to win a gold medal in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. This was back in the good old days when the Olympics were still mental: he won gold in the Art Competition.

The Cristo Redentor was formally opened, in as much as a solid concrete statue can open, on October 12th 1931, costing roughly £2 million in today's money - a definite bargain. It weighs in at a fairly trim 635 tonnes, with the arms streching 28 metres wide. At 30 metres tall, it's 16 metres shorter than the Statue of Liberty, but has a much smaller pedestal, just 8 metres high to Liberty's 47. However, its true pedestal is the Corcovado, which elevates the Redeemer hundreds of metres over the city.

It is this position on the Corcovado that gives the Christ the Redeemer its greatness. It's not a particularly big statue - on the Wikipedia page of tallest statues, it doesn't even rank in the top 100. But then, when you look at the Cristo Redentor, it's not just the statue you're looking at. That's why it takes such an incredible picture if you happen to somehow be hovering above.

My own reservations are noted above and in my old blog post, but I'll be revisting the Cristo Redentor with fresh eyes. By boldly announcing itself to be one of the Seven Wonders, it has put itself onto a sky high pedestal that attracts criticism and comparison that it would otherwise not have received. But, at the same time, there's no doubt it has raised its profile. It has got people talking about it. It has made me devote many years of my life to finding out if its claims are legitimate or not: you can't ask to be famous without others wondering if you deserve to be. The Cristo Redentor may only be a 30-metre-tall statue, but it has managed to become a symbol of Rio and Brazil, and has its voice heard among the big boys of the Wonder alumni. That's no small achievement. And while its fair to say that unless I have a dramatic change of heart I don't imagine the Cristo Redentor will be ranking anything close to a World Wonder in my final rankings, I expect fame and surroundings alone to lift it to a pretty decent position. It'a a great monument, but perhaps just not the greatest.

I'll be visiting the Cristo Redentor probably some time year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own definitive impressions.


  1. "It is this position on the Corcovado that gives the Christ the Redeemer its greatness."

    Yes. In fact they could have put just about anything there and it would be spectacular because of its position. The same cannot be said of some other potential wonders - a gothic cathedral for example rarely owes much of its splendour to its surroundings.

    To me the Cristo Redentor is like a cherry on top of Rio's true wonder - its natural surroundings of bays and peaks.

    1. Yeah, I think you may just have written my review for me.