Aleijadinho: Two Centuries of Art and Faith

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    From the Editor (Tuesday, 11/11/2014 Gaudium Press) During the month of November, Brazil commemorates the second centenary of the death of Antônio Francisco Lisboa, called Aleijadinho, considered the main representative of Minas Gerais baroque art and, by many, the greatest native artist. The occasion is a fitting one for recalling the legacy of this genius of the chisel-of his dedication to art, of his fortitude in facing misfortune, and of his unmatched talent, which he placed at the service of the Church.

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    Something surprising and awe-inspiring about Aleijadinho is the contrast between the scanty artistic instruction that he received and the perfection of the work he accomplished. His entire life unfolded in Vila Rica, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais; he was unacquainted with the renowned masters of the age and visited none of the great European monuments.

    With nothing more than the conventional education that the city offered, Antônio Francisco Lisboa found in religious inspiration the incentive that gave wings to his creative skill and helped him attain a rare degree of excellence, even among the distinguished men of his profession. Art critics say that his legacy deserves not only to be listed among the achievements of baroque art, but confers on him a place of honour alongside the most brilliant exponents of sacred iconography in Western Christianity.

    Vila Rica and the gold rush

    When the bandeirantes led by Antônio Dias de Oliveira reached the lofty peak of Itacolomi, after several exhausting days, they observed in the rivers of the region dark nuggets carried there by the current. They were flabbergasted to confirm that is was the legendary “black gold”, and this finding prompted them to undertake the incursion.

    The seventeenth century was drawing to a close and the following one would open a new page in the history of Brazil. The people of São Paulo State understandably rejoiced over the discovery, and this initial euphoria gave way to awe: the abundance of gold deposits in the region were much greater than conjectured; in some areas it was enough to pull up a plant from the ground to find fragments of the brilliant metal, clinging to the roots…Aleijadinho5.jpg

    The eyes of old Portugal were soon riveted on the digging sites of Antônio Dias and other pioneers. Jealous of the discovery, the mother country established strict norms regarding mining and kept a close eye on the Gerais zone, soon elevated to the category of a capitania [the first administrative divisions of Brazil.

    This zeal is justifiable considering the statistics: it is estimated that the soil of this small strip of land yielded more than half of all the gold wealth extracted from the Americas, and that in the seventy-year gold rush, more ore was mined there than over the course of two centuries in the rest of the world.

    The camps that had been set up gave way, in 1711, to the city which received the name of Vila Rica of Our Lady of the Pillar of Albuquerque, established shortly after as the administrative centre of the capitania. Almost overnight, Vila Rica became a vibrant urban centre, dedicated to extracting fabulous treasures from the depths of the earth.

    In tandem with the gold rush prospered a Catholic population, zealous for Church precepts, traditions and liturgical ceremonial. The whole state was grounded on a foundation of faith. As fervent Catholics, followers of Christ, the inhabitants strove to adorn the towns with churches on par with the riches that God had lavished upon them.

    The visitor who tours the historic cities of Minas Gerais today, finds its winding streets filled with magnificent churches, fine examples of the baroque and rococo styles.

    The blossoming of an artistic vocation

    Drawn by the news from overseas, the Portuguese architect Manuel Francisco Lisboa decided to settle in Vila Rica in 1724, and after some time gained renown there as a competent craftsman. From the union with his slave Isabel, Antônio Francisco was born in 1738; he was conceded the condition of freeman at his Baptism.

    The mestizo child with intelligent eyes grew up under the salutary influence of art and faith. There is little actual documentation about him and much conjecturing, but this does not prevent us from tracing a reliable profile of him based on his sculptures: Aleijadinho was possessed of a daring spirit bent on accomplishing feats; he was an astute observer of reality and well acquainted with the human soul.

    The years of his youth were spent in mastering his profession and the execution of his first works-of themselves indicative of uncommon talent. It is believed that the masters of Aleijadinho included, in addition to his father, some of the finest artists of that time, propagators of the techniques in vogue in Rio de Janeiro and Portugal. While his ability for learning on his own was the most decisive element in the unfolding of his talent, “the existence of a setting favourable to the blossoming of an indomitable artistic vocation is undeniable,”1 and names such as those of woodcarvers José Coelho de Noronha and Francisco Xavier de Brito, and of metal engraver João Gomes Batista are linked with Antônio Francisco’s instruction.

    The fruit of this first phase, spanning from 1760 to 1774, include the architectural plan of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, drawn up at the same time as that of Our Lady of Carmel, designed by his father. But Aleijadinho’s participation in the works of the church dedicated to the Poverello were not limited to design; he wielded the chisel to sculpt the facade, the ceiling of the chancel, the pulpits and the sacristy lavabo, resulting in the most definitive of Brazilian baroque edifices.

    Also during this period, he introduced the innovation of using soapstone as raw material for sculptures. He was commissioned to appraise the Church of Carmel-a task equivalent to a modern-day inspection, which serves as proof of the recognition of his skills on the part of authorities.

    On August 5 of 1772, Aleijadinho enrolled in the fraternity of St. Joseph of the Mulattoes Church, and generously offered to design its high altar.

    Baroque style, traces of a medieval soul

    In the field of art, as perhaps in no other, each work is a reflection of the soul of the one who executes it.Aleijadinho.jpg

    Germain Bazin, who was a curator of the Louvre Museum and studied Antônio Francisco Lisboa, highlighted this important nuance: “Two men struggle for the soul of Aleijadinho […]. The architect-decorator belongs to the world of the eighteenth century; but, when he grasps a chisel to shape a statue, his vision of forms is that of a man of the Middle Ages.”2 Indeed, it is known that Antônio Francisco drew inspiration for his sculptures from ancient engravings, some of them, in fact, with medieval characteristics or traces.

    Joined to this affirmation of an aesthetic nature, the French author grasped a facet of the soul of Aleijadinho, who, like medieval artisans who were conscious that their pieces would serve as a portal to the supernatural, conceived their métier as a religious duty. Accordingly, he sought to distil the best in his subjects, reflecting on them and attributing to each protagonist a lofty spiritual attitude in the context of the diverse episodes of salvation history.

    The gothic leaning of Aleijadinho can be discerned in a few scattered images, but it boldly stands out in the churchyard of the Shrine of the Good Jesus of Matosinhos. There, observed Bazin, “the enthusiasm of baroque inspiration dominates the prophets of Congonhas, making their gestures stand out against the blue canvas of the impassible sky of Minas Gerais. However, a more profound breath animates them, an instinct which gives to the oratory style of the baroque a strength of conviction taken from the faith of bygone times.”3

    Middle age, beleaguered by leprosy
    < br />Due to the growing fame of the sculptor and carver, the fraternities of the capitania solicited his collaboration with growing frequency. In mid-life (1774-1790), he laboured tirelessly at a variety of works in the churches of Mariana, Sabará and São João del Rei, in addition to those of Vila Rica.

    In some instances, this resulted in quaint disputes between the Third Order Franciscans and Carmelites for the services of the sculptor, for each vied to outfit the most beautiful churches. A document of the Church of Carmel of Sabará attests its esteem for Aleijadinho: “The best means for these works to be executed with perfection, and without alteration, in accordance with the designs, is to sign a contract with the master and the workers most skilled in executing them in that form, and for this reason the very reverend commissar sub-prior and the brother members of the committee are in common and unanimous agreement that only master Antônio Francisco Lisboa and his workers can accomplish it with the degree of perfection desired.”4

    In this phase of prosperity, we can imagine the mestizo as his oldest biographer presents him: robust, joyful and jovial, friend of the bountiful table and popular festivities. He spent his savings in generous alms and owned three slaves, whom he treated kindly.5

    But misfortune struck, to imprint the noble mark of sorrow on his soul. In 1777, the illness that would take his life showed its first symptoms, transforming him in the years that followed into a sober and reserved man. His sickness has not been ascertained with certainty, but it is believed to have been neural leprosy.
    The disease progressed slowly, leaving irreversible marks: Aleijadinho [meaning “little cripple”] lost his fingers and toes, the suppleness of the skin and facial expression; finally he would lose mobility and sight. To sculpt or carve, he fastened the instruments to his mutilated members, enduring considerable discomfort. It is estimated that he lived in this state for thirty-seven years, having received from his contemporaries the appellative by which he is known to this
    day.

    Congonhas: the city of stations…

    Antônio Francisco Lisboa left posterity his masterpiece-the monumental sculptural work of the stations and the prophets-when he was in the advanced stage of Hansen’s disease. Judging by the magnitude of this work and the effort it demanded, it can be conjectured that suffering increased his religious fervour, prompting him to render supreme homage to Christ before departing from this world.

    The commission came to him from the Shrine of the Good Jesus of Matosinhos, erected on a hill located one thousand metres above sea level in the small village of Congonhas do Campo. It is interesting to know something of the origin of this site: a Portuguese immigrant named Feliciano Mendes was stricken with a serious illness as a result of working in the mines. He promised the Good Jesus of Matosinhos that he would build a church in His honour if his health was restored. It was his intention to build a pilgrimage site in Brazil similar to the Shrine of Good Jesus of the Mount, located in the city of Braga, his birthplace.

    After the miraculous cure had been obtained, Feliciano set about fulfilling his objective: he gave his entire fortune for the construction, but, needing additional funds, he purchased a young negro slave with whom he went out into the streets dressed in penitential garb, begging alms. The commitment of this man and those who came after him directing the project made it possible to finance the coming of Aleijadinho in 1795 for the creation of the statues, when the building was nearing completion.

    This work was completed in the third phase of the master’s activities (1790-1812) and lasted only nine years-record time. Aided by some officials, Aleijadinho enthusiastically undertook the construction of the stations, traditionally designed to enable the pilgrim to meditate on the same episodes he would contemplate in loco, if he were to visit the Holy Land.Aleijadinho3.jpg

    Accordingly, 62 large blocks of cedar were carved and distributed in small chapels along the route, culminating in the churchyard. The scenes of the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging, the Crowning with Thorns and the Ascent of Calvary with the Cross foster the piety of the faithful; at the end of cycle, there is a touching Crucifixion scene.

    These carvings not only represent technical prowess but also great expressive capacity, of which the theatrical-a characteristic of baroque-is not absent. The demeanour of the personages, faithful renditions of the Gospel narrations, are highlighted by countenances filled with verve and spirituality. But it is the beauty of the images of the suffering Christ that win over the devout soul, through the piety they inspire. They denote nobility, supreme goodness, and attest to the moral perfection of the immolated Lamb, in contrast with the executioners.

    …and the prophets

    Nevertheless, it is not to the images of the stations that Congonhas owes its glory, but to the world-famous prophets sculpted in soapstone. In front of the edifice are gathered twelve messengers of God, as if rising from the pages of the Old Testament, to announce prophecies to the Chosen People and prepare them for the coming of the Redeemer. These sculptures are the fruit of magnificent inspiration; they embody the mission bestowed by the Lord on His chosen ones with splendour and occupy an unrivalled place in this genre.

    Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, the major prophets are among the most beautiful. Vested in the style of the Quatroccento, with eastern adornments and physiognomies, they are presented at varying ages-only Isaiah is an aged man; Daniel is a handsome youth-and in a diversity of poses, thus dominating the panorama and convoking sinners to convert to the ways of justice.

    The other prophets, Baruch, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum and Habakkuk, follow the cortege of illustrious peers with scrolls in hand, upon which can be read passages such as this from Baruch: “I foretell the coming of Christ in the flesh and the end times of the world, and I warn devout souls.” All of them are imposing, intrepid in the proclamation of the oracles and seem immersed in noble thought. Obadiah and Habakkuk point skyward, while Hosea holds a quill, to bequeath holy admonitions to posterity. Jonah, recently delivered from the marine mammal, squints as he comes into contact with natural light.

    When he finished the work, Aleijadinho returned to Vila Rica in 1805. Nine years of life yet remained to him, which he dedicated to tasks of lesser responsibility, such as overseeing his old assistants and carving minor works. During the last two years, blind and bedridden, he entrusted himself to the mercy of Jesus crucified. On November 14, 1814, extenuated by illness and assisted by the Sacraments, he surrendered his soul to God.Aleijadinho2.jpg

    Works that reveal the grandeur of their author

    The personality of Antônio Francisco is shrouded in mystery, lost in the mists of time. Today, thanks to research carried out on his story, we can sketch some of the events of his life, but questions will likely remain unanswered.

    Notwithstanding, there is a simple way to “meet” the sculptor, two centuries after his death, by going to Congonhas at twilight, when the sun is slipping behind the noble mountains of the region. The daytime noises and the cries of energetic children have died down.

    Then, with growing awe, the pilgrim can approach the statues. Seeing them up close, one senses a biblical grandeur, and can appreciate the choice of this seemingly “prophetic” vantage point for the placement of the masterpieces. One seems to hear the preaching of these giants of the Faith echo on the horizon with mysterious eloquence, summoning to a change of life: “I wept over the disaster of Judea and the ruin of Jerusalem and beseech my people to turn back to the Lord.”

    Beside us, we can feel the silent presence of the interlocutor of these figures, who granted us this spectacle. His Catholic soul was imbued with the spirit of these ambassadors of the Most High and, seized by wonder, he left us a remembrance of the flashes that came to him in fruitful moments of contemplation.

    We take our leave, marked by a gentle impression left by the sculptures, so authentic as to dispel all doubt: “So this is Aleijadinho!”.

    1 JORGE, Fernando. O Aleijadinho. Sua vida, sua obra, sua época, seu gênio. 7.ed. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2006, p.45.
    2 BAZIN, Germain. O Aleijadinho e a escultura barroca no Brasil. São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro: Record, 1971, p.296.
    3 Idem, ibidem.
    4 THIRD ORDER OF CARMEL OF SABARÁ. Deliberação, de 25/11/1781, apud BAZIN, op. cit., p.101.
    5 Cf. BRETAS, Rodrigo José Ferreira. Traços biográficos relativos ao finado Antônio Francisco Lisboa, distinto escultor mineiro, mais conhecido pelo apelido de Aleijadinho. In: LEMOS, Maria Alzira Brum. Aleijadinho. Homem barroco, artista brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 2008, p.141-150.

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