Those great wonders of the ancient world, the Colossus of Rhodes and Phidias’s gigantic statue of Zeus at Olympia are sadly lost to us today, but overlooking Rio de Janeiro stands one of their successors, the awe-inspiring statue of Christ the Redeemer. Named as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ in an international poll in 2007, the 30-metre tall, 1,145-ton statue, with its outstretched arms, is the city’s most recognisable landmark and a cherished national icon for Brazil.
Standing on the peak of the 700m-high Corcovado Mountain, the statue of Cristo Redentor, as it’s known in Portuguese, occupies a commanding spot watching over Rio, the favelas, the beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema at the Atlantic Ocean beyond, and has become not just a symbol of Brazilian Christianity, but of worldwide peace. It’s a hugely popular tourist attraction, receiving an estimated 5,000 visitors a day, and, since a chapel was consecrated in the pedestal beneath the statue in 2006, it has also been a fashionable location for marriages and baptisms.
Work on the statue began in 1922, partly to celebrate the centenary of Brazil’s independence from Portugal, and it was finally completed in 1931. Designed by local architect Heitor da Silva Costa, in the contemporary Art Deco style, it was built by the French-Polish sculptor Paul Landowski, while the statue’s face was created separately, by the Romanian sculptor Gheorghe Leonida. It was an ambitious project. The statue of Christ was intended to be the tallest in the world, and for such a vast monument, it was decided that it would need to be constructed with reinforced concrete. This was then faced with thousands of tiny mosaic tiles – just 5mm thick – made from soapstone, which was both easy to carve and hard-wearing.
Inside the hollow statue, a network of stairways and tunnels allows access for maintenance workers – and eight decades of exposure to sun, wind, rain, pollution and lightning strikes means that maintaining this edifice is becoming a full time job. The statue is struck by lightning several times each years, and a particularly powerful electrical storm in January 2014 damaged the figure’s hand and head. The quarry where the original pale soapstone for the statue was sourced is now exhausted, and so gradually the statue is turning a darker hue as damaged tiles are replaced with different stone.
Although no longer the tallest statue of Christ in the world – the 33-metre high statue ofChrist the King in Poland, built in 2010, currently holds that title – Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer remains a globally recognised symbol of Rio and is close to the heart of every Carioca, the native citizens of this endlessly fascinating city.