Cristo Redentor

There are 19 days now until Carnaval  begins and I fill them in with a bit of sightseeing. I begin with Brazil’s most famous monument.

Cristo Redentor stands at the summit of Corcovado, the highest point of Rio’s jagged skyline, with his head against the sky, the lush green of the forest under his heel, the sprawling city soft and hazy at his feet and the Atlantic Ocean sweeping away into infinity beneath his outstretched arms.

Cristo Redentor
Cristo Redentor

He is Cristo Redentor, the largest art deco statue ever built, the picture postcard image of Rio, the symbol of Catholic Brazil and one of the seven man-made wonders of the world.

The Catholic Circle of Rio proposed the idea of a national monument, in the form of a statue of Christ in 1921. The first stone was laid in 1922 and in 1923, a national fundraising programme, Semana do Monumento, (Monument week) raised the $250,000 for construction. The statue was designed by Carlos Oswald. Its reinforced concrete core was constructed by engineer Heitor da Silva Costa and its soapstone outer layer was sculpted by the French sculptor Paul Landowski. When statue was inaugurated, on October 12, 1931 the Cardinal of Brazil, Cardinal Leme consecrated the Brazilian nation “to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, acknowledging him always as its Lord and King”.

Cristo stands 38 metres tall on its pedestal. Its arm span is 30 metres wide and it weighs 635 tonnes. On the statue’s 75th anniversary, the Archbishop of Rio consecrated the chapel of Nossa Senhora Aparecida (the patron Saint of Brazil) in the pedestal of the chapel. Baptisms and weddings are held here and many of the visitors to Cristo pause for a moment of prayer. Dress codes apply!

The trip up to Cristo on the Corcovado Railway from Cosme Velho, the old town, through the Tijuca forest is an experience in itself. Built in 1884, the train is vintage Rio and when it was electrified in 1901, became the first electric railway in Brazil. It rattles straight up the mountainside at an alarming angle. Looking forward, branches of Brazilian rosewood and cedars tumble towards you. Through the open windows of the train you can smell the cinnamon trees, see the butterflies and feel the soft, cool air of the forest. Looking back, if you can bear the vertiginous sensation, you can see the city fall away into a pattern of rooftops.

There are 220 steps from the train to the statue and it’s worth walking them rather than sailing straight up the escalator to the foot of the statue. The stairs give a different vista both of the city and of Cristo. There’s a sense of the pilgrimmage, with even relics (souvenir shop!) and sustenance (café!) Then the breathless, slightly light-headed state on arrival just adds to the moment.

Standing in Cristo’s mighty shadow, dazzled by the shaft of sunlight that falls across his shoulder, with the clouds turning above me, the treetops of Tijuca swaying at my shoulder, the shining white towers of Rio below and the infinite Atlantic surging beyond them, I’m lost for words. When I find them they’re words like grandeur, majesty and splendour.