Rio's Christ statue: Washington Post adds a delightful angle to the Olympics

The Olympics in Rio have already thrilled millions with the gold medal performances of champs like Michael Phelps and the Final Five gymnastic team. But the Washington Post takes the occasion to look even higher: at the statue of Christ who stretches his arms out over the city.

This delightful newsfeature, by the Post's veteran religion writer Michelle Boorstein, captures several sides of what she calls "the most recognizable Christian image in Latin America": the history, the sheer size, and the many meanings behind it.

Yes, meanings, plural. As Boorstein says, "Christ the Redeemer" stands high in that class of national symbols standing for many things to many people. And yes, religious and spiritual elements are on her list.

Her story smoothly blends background, color, humor and informed sources:

But Cristo’s meaning to Brazilians varies. Some see it as a tribute to Catholicism while others consider it a salvo against secularism. Still others in the rapidly diversifying country consider it a general symbol of welcome, with arms open wide. One of its original creators called it a "monument to science, art and religion."
Cristo is an iconic image of Brazil. It is "reproduced everywhere," read a 2014 BBC feature, "in graffiti art, sand sculptures on Copacabana beach — and even on skin." During Carnival, there is a street party called Christ’s Armpit, or ‘Suvaco do Cristo," that weaves its way at the base of the mountain, called Corcovado.

I can even forgive her for writing "iconic image of Brazil." Whenever I see that worn adjective "iconic" these days, it looks like a flag for "Creative Shortfall Here!" But this time, the subject matter deserves it.

This story has a lot of what we old-school journalists used to call the "Hey, Mabel!" -- fun facts you'd want to tell your mate right away. We imagined a husband reading the paper over coffee and saying, "Hey, Mabel! Did you know that …" 

Here are some of those:

* It's the world’s largest Art Deco-style sculpture, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica online.

* The 125-foot-tall image, atop Corcovado Mountain, stands nearly a half-mile high.

* Countering secularism was the initial goal of the statue when its Brazilian creators began building it in the 1920s, in the wake of World War I.

* It's in one of those "urban jungles" -- literally -- that interweave throughout Rio. "To get there one passes through a forest (either by hike, by car or by train." 

But there's more here than travelogue bites. There's also another journalistic favorite -- the paradox:

Thomas Tweed, a history professor and Latino Studies Institute fellow at the University of Notre Dame, compared Cristo to the Statue of Liberty — national iconic images that can’t help but stir debate about what, specifically, they say.
"The statue looms large on the landscape, but it hides as much as it reveals about the diverse religious life of Brazilians," Tweed said Monday.

Although secularism was a concern in the 1920s, Brazil was solidly Catholic at the time, the Post says. Even in 1970, 92 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholic. Today, though, a quarter are Protestant, mostly evangelical, and 10 percent of Brazilians don’t affiliate with any faith.

That would explain why the statue means many things to many people.

Part of the delight in this story is the roster of great sources. One is a Rio native who now teaches at Catholic University (I'm guessing the Catholic U. in Washington, D.C.). "It has a lot of things behind it — not just the religious symbol but this welcoming symbol of open arms. It’s also supposed to mean we are good hosts," she says.

That could be seen as a typical effort by the mainstream media to water down a religious symbol, but the Post finds a cleric who agrees:

"It’s a religious symbol, a cultural symbol and a symbol of Brazil," the BBC quotes Padre Omar, rector of the chapel in the statue’s base. "Christ the Redeemer brings a marvelous vista of welcoming arms to all those who pass through the city of Rio de Janeiro."

Wish Boorstein could have interviewed the statue creators nowadays. I wonder how they would react to see modern Rio, with its many spiritual influences -- not only secularism and evangelicalism, but alos the hedonism of Carnival and the blend of Catholicism and African religion known as Macumba. I've even seen a video of Muslim missionaries "calling people to Islam" right in the shadow of the Christ statue.

After smiling throughout the story, I feel seem almost petty to talk about drawbacks. But I find it odd when the chair of the art department at Catholic University says the statue is a more "modern" image of Christ because it doesn't show him crucified. Odd, because "Christ the Redeemer's" arms are flung straight out in an unmistakable cruciform pose. Neither Heimann nor the article notes this.

And what of those millions of evangelical Brazilians? What do they see when they gaze upward? The looming presence of the Catholic Church? Simply another vision of Jesus, shared among all Christians? Or a Lord who welcomes all to Brazil? Would have been interesting to know.

But let's end on a good note: The Post could have easily bogged down in the fascinating details of Christ the Redeemer" -- details that fill up a BBC article that's among the story sources. Rather than stray from her theme, though, Boorstein wisely plucked a few gems, then added the link for those interested. I'll do the same.

Thumb: View of "Christ the Redeemer," photographed by

Photo: "Christ the Redeemer" overlooking Rio De Janeiro, by Artyominc via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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