Saturday, 22 February 2014

35. Wonder: The Cristo Redentor

(For the Cristo Redentor preview, please click here.)

Many people spend their lives searching for redemption. But in Rio de Janeiro, it's a lot quicker: just look up. Perched upon the prominent Corcovado mountain peak is Christ the Redeemer, or the Cristo Redentor, all 30 metres of Art Deco concrete and soapstone, arms famously open, embracing the beautiful chaos of the city below.

(clearly not my photo, I stole it from here, though I'm fairly certain it's not theirs either)

Fanning along coastlines, splattered between green peaks, Rio de Janeiro is a colossal sprawl, a delightful mess. It would be a lie to pretend that the statue is visible from everywhere - only the sun and sky have that authority - but it's probably fair to say that it's visible from almost everywhere that matters. Along Copacabana and onto Ipanema beaches, from the surge of rock that is the Sugarloaf, over the shoulder of the concrete monster that is the Metropolitan Cathedral, at the national stadium of the Maracana, Christ the Redeemer looks down. As the Rio citizens, the carioca, are dancing the samba, sunning themselves in Speedos or thongs, mugging tourists with guns, or doing whatever else they get up to in their spare time, the statue of Christ embraces them and their city.

It would be fair to say that I came to Rio with a degree of skepticism. In 2007, I visited the city and the statue, kickstarting this whole Wonders fandango. The voting public claimed it was one of the New 7 Wonders; I disagreed. It wasn't that I disliked the Cristo Redentor, I just didn't think it was in the same category as the Great Pyramid of Egypt, and I vowed to prove it. After all, it's just a 30 metre statue on top of a hill. How good can that really be? Well, after visiting this 30-metre statue on a hill a couple more times, I find myself revising my views quite radically. Redemption indeed.

Our plane from Porto Alegre landed at Rio's domestic airport, Santa Dumont, on an early Saturday evening, offering a few tantalising glimpses of Christ's distant figure as it did so. We immediately dipped into the heady nightlife of the Lapa district, where we were staying, which offers no ready views of the statue. Out of sight from his watchful eyes in a seedy but intriguing underworld, the next day we were punished by an almighty hangover in an apartment in which I hadn't yet figured out how to turn on the air-conditioning. It was a rough morning, a rough day. The weather agreed, overcast with occasional pounding rain. Later in the afternoon, to clear our heads, we took a wander, along the currently unused and in-repair tram lines of the neighbouring Santa Teresa district. The clouds too, albeit only briefly, cleared, revealing a dim figure on an unseen mount. It was a glimpse only, as the blanket of cloud was quickly pulled up again. A sleepy Sunday.

If the cloud cover was any indication, Monday was feeling sleepy also. But with a total of only five days in Rio de Janeiro and two visits to the statue planned, we decided to go for it. There are only a couple of ways to reach the statue: by minibus or by train. The train is by far the option of choice. The girl at the ticket office was perfectly honest with us as we approached - "visibility is poor", she said. It was even stamped on our tickets.

One of the quirks of the Cristo Redentor and the Corcovado Train, the dedicated train that runs up to it, is that the train came first. By decades. Think about this for a moment - you've got a world famous landmark on top of a hill, and a tourist train leading there. It would seem likely that the statue was built first and its popularity soon demanded a form of mass transit to get the crowds there. Or perhaps they might be built simultaneously. But the trainline was constructed before the Cristo Redentor was even a glint in its father's eye. Its origins run as far back as 1824 when the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro I, decided he'd like to get some good views of the city. The Corcovado seemed the prime spot for this and a trail leading up to the top was built. This wasn't a casual undertaking, it was a full-on expedition, involving hacking a route through thick mountainside rainforest. But what a view. Dom Pedro's son, Pedro II, rather enjoyed the view too, and near the end of his reign reckoned it would be a good idea to turn it into a tourist attraction. By 1885 it was complete - a railway linked the top of the Corcovado with the bottom. It's still in use today: a special notched line (called a rack railway) and a train with cog-like wheels to fit into the notches, as to allow for the steep climb.

The statue came much later, first seriously proposed in 1921 and completed nine years after. With the train already well established, transportation of the steel frame, soapstone coating, and 700 tons of concrete wasn't much of an issue. The Corcovado, blessed with incredible views of Rio de Janeiro all around it, was now also blessed with an icon on top.

Which is all very nice, if you can see it. But the Corcovado, being a shade over 700 metres tall, is rather susceptible to low cloud. The ticket office girl hadn't been lying - visibility really was limited. There was none. As the train climbed the steep slope, cutting through the jungle that clings to it, everything became white. We entered a thick mist that was in a very lingering mood. The train arrived, and we climbed a series of stairways to the viewing platform (don't worry, there's a lift and then an escalator if you're feeling weak). But where was Jesus? And um... where was Rio?

Danielle and I weren't the only people to be asking this question. Oh no. There were lots of other people wondering the same thing. We'd imagined that the cloud cover and not being able to see the actual statue might put people off. We'd have the consolation prize of at least a little peace; the opposite was true. The top of the Corcovado is just a pinnacle, not a vast plateau, and so the viewing platform in front of the Cristo Redentor - to view both it and the city - is of necessarily limited size. There's a circular area roughly the size of a helicopter landing pad, culminating in a handful of steps down to another similarly sized area. Not that I'd advise landing a helicopter there - rather a lot of annoying tourists would be killed (well, actually...). In short, there's a tiny area only for a hugely popular and famous tourist attraction - it gets very, very crowded. If ever you want to learn how to hate your fellow man, go and see the Christ statue. After five minutes jostling for space, being walked in front of, and witnessing endless amounts of the inevitable "arms-apart" pose, you'll be praying for that helicopter.

The clouds didn't dissuade the crowds. Worse, it encouraged them to stay. Everybody wanted their photo and everybody seemed willing to stay as long as it took for a break in the clouds. Which, in about an hour, happened once, for about five seconds.

We got fed up after a while, filled with a deep resentment of our fellow man and a new-found hate of clouds, and took the train back. It had been a frustrating experience. But yet... yet... we had a sense of something. When the clouds had lifted, briefly and suddenly, a small cheer of appreciation had come from the packed hordes. I'd felt that same cheer. There was something special there.

Over the next couple of days the weather cleared. The Cristo Redentor returned to the city, making frequent appearances during our wanders.

Sure, from a distance, the statue is small, sometimes little more than a speck. It's not quite ever-present, but it is very present. And it has presence. It has reached that level of fame that seems to demand your attention. Like spotting, say, the Queen in Asda - even if you're not a royalist, you can't pretend you wouldn't keep sneaking glimpses every time you saw her in the aisle. The Christ has that power. During a walking tour we did one morning, the guide pointed out the statue, far in the distance, and immediately a shimmer of excitement rippled through the group. It is the star of Rio de Janeiro, and the undoubted Wonder of the city. The big question I'm asking is whether it's also a World Wonder.

Our return visit, in far better weather, helped answer that question. Even my feelings as we approached, this time by minibus, were telling: I was really looking forward to seeing it again. It was late afternoon going on early evening so the sun was lighting up Christ's rear, if you'll pardon me saying so, so the photos I took don't do it justice (I'd advise a morning visit for better photographers than myself) but it looked terrific. The Cristo Redentor has been the inspiration for a great deal of other Jesus statues around the world, and especially South America, and I have to say, a lot of them are pretty rubbish. Take a look:

These are: the Christ of Vung Tao, Vietnam; Christ of the Ozarks, Arkansas, USA; Christ the King, Swiebodzin, Poland; and the Cristo Blanco in Cusco, visited in December. And there are many more out there. They vary in quality, to say the least. But the Cristo Redentor is a genuine class act. It's an extremely handsome statue, Art Deco style, and not suffering at all from the trap of being tacky. Sensitively and subtly executed, it has an elegant simplicity. Despite being a huge statue on top of an even huger mountain, it is free of any over-bearing grandeur. It isn't pompous. Appropriately, rather like the New Testament Jesus, it is straightforward, humble, and honest. Very significantly, despite effectively reproducing the popular image of Jesus, it is a very distinctive, unmistakeable statue. It's no mean feat.

And the views. There are few better, in the world. It's true, no doubt, that if the statue was plonked in the middle of a city square, it might be admired but hardly revered. But the Cristo Redentor isn't in a city square, it's on top of the Corcovado, like the perfect cherry on a delicious cake. My photos don't do the views any justice, this is a view you need to see for yourself.

So, World Wonder? Well... no. Not quite. And here's why.

A Wonder and its surroundings are intrinsic parts of each other. The Great Wall of China is just a wall without its spectacular mountain scenery, the mountains are just mountains without this astonishing, apparently endless wall snaking along their peaks and ridges. But much of the wonder of the Cristo Redentor is really the wonder of Rio de Janeiro. It s a very fine line and a difficult one to draw, and I can imagine opinions will differ. Danielle does not entirely agree with me on it, for example. Would Machu Picchu be so impressive on flat ground? No, but would its mountainous surroundings be so impressive without their epic Inca ruins? Sure, they'd still be great, as all such scenes are, but they wouldn't have their defining feature. A cake without filling. However, would Rio still be impressive without the Cristo Redentor? Yes. You can take the cherry off a cake and the cake still tastes great. Ultimately, the Cristo Redentor is a sensational symbol, a brilliant statue, but much of its glory is really the glory of Rio. It enhances but it doesn't define the scene. Emperor Dom Pedro I built his trail to the top of the Corcovado for this scene. His son built the tourist train up because of this scene. With or without the Cristo Redentor, the vista of Rio de Janeiro is world class and would always be world famous, and that's something you couldn't say the same about the Great Wall or Machu Picchu and their surroundings.

In case this sounds like I'm being harsh: I am. I have to be. This has become an intensely competitive field: mankind has built some incredible structures. The Cristo Redentor is fabulous, and it is the perfect topping for the Corcovado, the perfect statue for Rio. I am mesmerised by it. But let's not pretend the statue has pushed the boundaries of what mankind can do, or that it ripples with unimaginable mystery, or that it's unique or unworldly in its design. It's exquisite, perfectly executed, supremely iconic, and with wonderful Rio de Janeiro all around it. But although I might keep my voice down among the cariocas, I don't think it's a Wonder of the World.

Let's see what the criteria have to say.

Size: It's pretty small - a statue of 30 metres on top of an 8-metre pedestal. Clearly though, the natural 709 metres of the Corcovado give it a little extra height.
Engineering: A straightforward execution of a concrete statue built over a metal frame, with a soapstone coating.
Artistry: Subtle, dignified, perfect. Rio is known for its party lifestyle, and in a different world you can almost imagine a more celebratory Christ figures, arms aloft, on top of the hill. It wouldn't work. The serene, sincere figure of redemption that was built is a masterpiece of art and judgement.
Age: Finished in 1931, it's still young. Exposed on top of the Corcovado, it needs frequent maintenance.
Fame/Iconicity: Paris and France have the Eiffel Tower, London and England have Big Ben, Sydney and Australia have the Sydney Opera House. This is what the Cristo Redentor is, a symbol of its city and country. And while I think its world profile is just a shade behind these examples, it's not far behind, and with a World Cup and Olympics looming, I think this is ready to change.
Context: Truly sensational. Rio de Janeiro is all around.
Back Story: Fairly ordinary. A man built a railway to look at the view. Year later, the church decided to build a nice statue on top. Not much drama took place, no boundaries were pushed, it was a job well done. Perhaps that's why Amazon isn't exactly packed with books about the statue.
Originality: In one sense, not at all. It's a statue of a human form, in this case Jesus. But in another sense, it appears to have created a new sub-genre, with the style and pose of the outstretched figure subsequently widely copied throughout the world. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Wow Factor: I don't think touting it as one of the Seven Wonders of the World helps its case, hence why in 2007 I concluded that it was alright, but not as big as it might be. But that's unfair. Remove these expectations of size and bombast and you have a hugely compelling statue, that draws the eye from afar, and is exciting and satisfying to view up close. And its increasing fame is seeing the Wow Factor correspondingly increase. When the mist briefly cleared and the crowd gasped and cheered, they weren't cheering at some awesome and unimaginable form, they were cheering at the Queen in Asda.

Things are about to change for the Christ the Redeemer statue. Its profile is set to go sky high. Everything is lining up for it to become very, very familiar to the world, as Brazil host a World Cup this year and Rio hosts an Olympics in two years. You can bet the image of Christ, arms outstretched, is going to used a lot. As a result, no matter what my own views - just one dissenting cat call among the noise of endless pigeons - the juggernaut of press attention looks good for the Cristo Redentor remaining as a World Wonder in the mostly unquestioning view of the public consciousness. I cannot imagine Christ being knocked off his pedestal any time soon. And although I may not share the view of the statue being in the very top echelon of the world's landmark structures, I can think of many worse candidates for the honour. I would consider it to be floating about in my "Other Wonders" section, snugly nestled below the Notre-Dame de Paris but comfortably above Carcassonne.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
=4. The Eiffel Tower
=4. Easter Island
6. The Millau Viaduct
7. Angkor Wat

Other Wonders
Sydney Opera House
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Cristo Redentor


Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Nazca Lines
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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