Brazilian Baroque: Congonhas





  1. In the late 17th century, the centre of gravity of colonial Brazil briefly shifted from the slave-based agriculture of the coast to the veins of gold of the interior. This area is now the state of Minas Gerais, which means “General Mines”. They still are.
  2. On the road north from Congonhas to Belo Horizonte, the December rain had painted the highway red. Enormous trucks that had once been yellows, greys and blues powered up hills and freewheeled down them. We passed a crest on the hill and the heart of country was open in front of us. The green was gone. Red earth was all there is. Red ore is all there is. Once the strips were exhausted, the pasture would probably be replaced.
  3. Cecília Meireles, the mid-20th-century Brazilian poet, described the same land under that gold rush in her Romanceiro da Inconfidência, perhaps best translated as Romance of the Conspiracy (my rough translation):
    A thousand gold pans swirl
    over the darkened streams;
    they open up the earth
    with endless furrows;

    and untold mine shafts
    go deep into the hills.Mil bateias vão rodando
    sobre córregos escuros;
    a terra vai sendo aberta
    por intermináveis sulcos;
    infinitas galerias
    penetram morros profundos.
  4. The colonial towns of Minas grew up and rich on the ground beneath them. Some were gold towns, some were diamond towns. Today I saw mostly iron ore towns and cities. Congonhas today is one.
  5. In a break in the rain, we arrived at Congonhas. The skies were tin. We climbed the hill above the town. The silver car was now red with ore.
  6. The church of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos sits baroquely, stately above the town. Hebrew prophets stand around the entrance, looking into the skies. Six stupa-pavilion chapels zigzag down the slope of the Via Crucis.
  7. Aleijandinho was born, Antônio Francisco Lisboa, in the 1730’s in today’s Ouro Preto and died there in 1814. He is almost certainly colonial America’s greatest artist: his sculptures, (almost?) entirely religious, are living pieces of stone. At the museum in Ouro Preto, we began to be able to tell his work apart with a glance from Virgins, Christs and saints by other sculptors. The difference is pathos. His name means “the little cripple”. He probably had leprosy (still a public health problem in today’s Brazil). He continued sculpting.
  8. By the time he began work on the Congonhas complex in 1800, he is supposed to have tied chisel and hammer to fingerless hands to carve the soapstone of the twelve prophets. The tableaux from the Passion are carved in cedar.
  9. The chapels of the Via Crucis, as well as depicting the Passion, are supposedly allegorical. Jesus has a red mark about his neck that represents Tiradentes, the leader of the Inconfidência Mineira, Latin America’s first independence movement and Brazil’s national hero, who was hanged in 1792. The Romans are said to wear the boots of Portuguese soldiers and have two left feet (I found out this later and noticed neither).
  10. The Roman soldiers also resemble characters from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. They are stupid and violent caricatures.
  11. One chapel is sparse (Gethsemane); most others are packed with life-size figures. Their verisimilitude is in the background conversations of soldier speaking with soldier. They are figures in movement.
  12. The twelve prophets at the gate of the church are the highlight. The day we visited, they were dark shapes against the sky.
  13. The prophets, from left to right, are Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Daniel, Baruch, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Habakkuk and Nahum.
  14. I am unlikely to write the word Habakkuk again. So, an aside: one of my favourite descriptions is from the Book of Habakkuk: “For behold, I will raise up the Chaldeans, a bitter and swift nation”. Some googling has told me this is only the case in the Douay-Rheims Bible. There is a visceral threat behind those two adjectives for the Chaldeans. The same threat that came with Genghis Khan, Cortes, Pizarro or Kitchener.
  15. Isaiah stands a wise man shaped by the wind.
  16. The lion at Daniel’s feet is uncannily like the dog-like lions you can find at any temple in China. Next to the lion, it is hard not to see Daniel as a Qing mandarin.
  17. Indeed, all the prophets are strangely reminiscent of Chinese sculpture. Should we be surprised? I’m not sure. In the Spanish Empire, America mediated relationships between Asia and Europe: the Philippines were governed from Mexico City and a lot of silver in Ming China came from mines in Mexico and Peru. The Portuguese Empire, slightly easier to understand for modern-day Atlantic-focused people, was the world’s first global empire with possessions in America, Africa and Asia, spun around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean towards India, China and Japan. For centuries, Latin America was closer to China than Europe is. The is porcelain I have seen in museums in Mexico and Brazil that will show this. Perhaps today it is again.
  18. Enigmas like these are part of what makes the sculptures so powerful. With a couple of hundred kilometres of detours, it took us two days to drive from Rio to Congonhas. At the beginning of the 19th century, Minas would have been a lot harder to reach. Yet despite this, the Baroque had its final, promiscuously cosmopolitan flowering in Aleijandinho, in the wide interior of South America, in soapstone carved by a man with chisel and hammer strapped to his arm.
  19. None of this sounds like it could be true. It is.






2 Responses to Brazilian Baroque: Congonhas

  1. What an inspiring post, Rob! Your shots are gorgeous, from top to bottom. You really brought them to life. So expressive. I also loved how you organized the post, of course. So many interesting details. Confession: I got a little weepy reading Antônio Francisco Lisboa. What a beautiful salute! T. (Again, your photographs are beauties!! Including the one with the little bird.)

    • Rob Packer says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Theodora! But I gotta say that the life in the sculptures is really in the stone (rather than the photos). They’re incredible – like the rest of Aleijandinho’s work.

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