Cultural Frontiers in Brazil: Tradition and Modernity in Sacred Places

Cultural Frontiers in Brazil: Tradition and Modernity in Sacred Places

Text presented with lecture at the II International Conference ‘Architectures of Local Cultures of the Borderlands: Architecture of Worship and Memorial Places in the Dialogue of Nations and Religions’ organized by the UIA/International Union of Architects: UIA Work Program ‘Spiritual Places’ in Bialystok (Poland) and Vilnius (Lituany) 02-03/october/2009

João Diniz, engineer/architect from the Architecture College, Minas Gerais Federal University (UFMG), in Belo Horizonte, 1980. Master of Arts in Civil Engineering specializing in Metal Construction from the Ouro Preto Federal University (UFOP), 2006. Since 1999, Assistant Professor at FUMEC University, Minas Gerais Foundation for Education and Culture. Since 1989, President/Director, João Diniz Arquitetura Ltda, in projects for Architecture, Town Planning and Design.

Painting ‘First Mass in Brazil’ by Vitor Meirelles dated 1860 (fig. 1)

is an important record for the study of Sacred Spaces in the country.

It is a scene of 1500 which portraits the arrival

and the discovery of Brazilian lands by Portuguese sailors.

The image features the major agents of the history of faith in the country that was just re-born uniting the simple, millenary indigenous culture

to the European Christian faith plenty of past and authority.

The nature is there as a primitive and eternal scenario,

synthesis of the American adventure and cradle to future transformations.

Priests venerate their cross regardless of the astonishment of the natives

who in their apparent naivety cannot foresee their gloomy fate.

The union of trees, sea and virgin lands

with the landscape there constructed by the geometrical cross would

become the synthesis of colonization and businesses in the ‘new world’,

the seriousness and heavy costumes of the newly-arrived visitors

in contrast to the well-adapted nudity and new fear of the indigenous.

The venue of the First Mass is now epicenter to a tourism complex,

and the symbolic cross is frequently reconstructed to mark the place.

The Porto Seguro region in the state of Bahia with beautiful beaches

welcomes visitors from Brazil and abroad every year,

the uprising of luxury hotels and airports stimulates the economy,

indigenous are still there, duly acculturated

in their garments and attitudes, and try, after five centuries, to participate

in the country’s society and economy, but in the end they are the image

of misunderstanding and poverty, survive on craftsmanship

and a subsistence culture, they are just like distant souvenirs

of a developing nation, which look at them carelessly.

On the other hand, the first Christian churches and marks of colonization

are kept in the venue and serve as stage to increasing recognition

of the history and formation of the Brazilian civilization where faith is blended

with entertainment businesses and photographs of visitors on vacation.

But part of the pre-European faith survives in the unconscious up to now.

A Brazilian pan-religious faith shall always consider Nature

and its importance in defining a national soul, on the one side

with its calendar of worship and celebration, makes its prayers

for the strength, energy and upkeep of our primeval scenarios:

such as the Amazon Rainforest with its planetary importance,

the human drama of the backwoods with all hidden possibilities,

the paradisiacal gorgeousness of beaches, the mythical silence of hills,

the biodiversity of Pantanal, the lowlands in Brazil’s center-western region,

the Atlantic Forest struggling to survive in the mercantile southeastern region,

pampas and canyons in the Spanish-like south where Brazil is more Latin.

The fight for the spirit elevated in prayer, in the 21st century will assume

a political positioning for preservation of natural resources and landscapes.

An eco-faith which is born anew, propelled by winds of the past,

pre-historical, primitive, ecumenical, futurist, an active creed which believes

that the sacred spaces are those which allow for the durableness of life.

This way, it is interesting to notice that Brazilian indigenous peoples

did not use to build sacred spaces intended only for worship.

They celebrated their faith and rites in their daily spaces (fig. 2),

open air, at the center of villages, in the multivalent ambience of their huts,

in the purifying waters of rivers, under the stars at night, dancing and singing,

along the rhythms of feet, flutes and drums which echo on the dust.

For them the existence of faith and belief in the higher spirit

does not have necessarily to do with the existence of a specific place.

The religious space is both inexistent and omnipresent.

This Indigenous-Christian polarization in the formation of the Brazilian spirit

starts receiving a new, powerful force with the arrival of negroes.

Slavery with its trafficking flows put in Brazil a large

amount of Africans from mid-16th century

who became an inseparable part of our history.

Slaves were brought to work in agriculture

but they influenced multiple aspects of the national culture such as

dance, music, cuisine, craftsmanship, language and religion.

There were two main routes from Africa to Brazil:

Nagos and Yorubas left Benin and Nigeria

to arrive in Bahia, northeastern Brazil,

and Bantos who left the surroundings of Congo and Angola

and arrived in more southeastern regions and then to the countryside.

These populations that used to be far away in Africa

become now a part of the Brazilian population,

although slavery and maltreatment considered them inferior beings.

From the standpoint of faith, celebration and sacred spaces,

such two major vectors coming from African origin

produced different influences in the Brazilian culture.

Bantos since then promote their faith

in celebrations known as Congado in the streets

with a positive impact of the faith in the urban spaces.

Congado celebrations symbolically enthroned Negro Kings

in Christian communities which, from the 18th century,

allowed the presence of slaves in parochial brotherhoods.

It is an event that makes sacred the open spaces in the city

as a place for worship with the accompaniment of music and dance (fig. 3)

that tell stories that refer to an Afro-Christian past

such as the life of Saint Benedict, Our Lady of the Rosary

and the fights of Charlemagne against Moor invasions.

On the other hand, Nagos and Yorubas celebrate their faith in a different way.

The worship generically known as Candomble

is celebrated in specific venues, quite simple but closed

known as Yards where god Olorum is worshipped

and sixteen Orixas in a kind of sacred pantheon.

At first, Candomble was forbidden by colonizers,

leading negroes to create a parallel between Orixas

and the saints of the official Catholic religion in a syncretism of continents.

This way, Yemaja, the African goddess of seductive rivers and oceans

is Our Lady of Conception in her maternity and acceptance.

Or Oya, goddess of transforming lightings, hurricanes and tornadoes,

is Saint Barbara, who protects the believers against natural disasters.

Shango, the black god of thunder, order and justice corresponds to

Saint Jerome, translator of the Bible to Hebrew and Latin, or

Saint John, who professed unity and peace by faith and baptized Jesus,

for the Christians the most genuine divine manifestation, is associated to

Obatala, divinity creator of humankind and the spiritual and material culture.

Other orishas are Yewa, goddess of forests, stars and lagoons;

Eshu, the transforming power who dominates sex and magic;

Ibeji, who rules birth, childhood and development;

Iroko, who dominates weather, climate, life and death;

Logun Ede, goddess of richness, abundance and beauty;

Nana Buluku, goddess of health, fate, mysteries and cycles;

Oba is the goddess of love, passion and professional success;

Ogoum means war, progress and achievements;

Omolu is linked to illnesses, earth and eruptions;

Osanyin rules the medicine, plants, cure, and remedies;

Obatala represents the procreating male power, the conception;

Oxossi is the god of hunt, agriculture, nutrition and wealth;

Oshum is the goddess of love, richness, maternity and fertility;

Oxumare, god of constant movement, transformation, long life;

Shango rules the state power, justice, judicial matters.

The celebration of African originating rites happens in spaces

of noteworthy and intentional simplicity with a celebration which is rich

in music and dance leading to a mythical ecstasy and is organized

in a circular shape where leading participants represent

Orishas around the main master, or Father of Saint (fig. 4),

of the instrumentalists or Ogans and participants of the local community.

Candomble originated Umbanda, a religion created in Brazil

which cultivates Orishas and blends aspects of Christianity and Spiritualism introducing three new spirits: the Old Black Man, Caboclo and Pomba Gira.

Such a collection of deities and cosmologic concepts is part of the richness that Africa brought to the American continent, and especially in Brazil, in an amalgam of races and creeds which help mould a new civilization.

Golden Cycle in the beginning of the 18th century proposes a new occupation

of the countryside, generating new wealth-producing poles.

Especially the state of Minas Gerais with the newly founded cities of

Ouro Preto (fig. 5), Mariana, Sabará, Serro, Diamantina and others,

representing a new economic and social focus for the nation.

We would say that this moment is a new manifestation of

a genuine national culture where, due to the distance to the coastline and

to the European metropolis, several colonizing procedures

had to be reinvented giving birth to a number of artistic manifestations

in architecture and town planning, sculpture, painting, music and literature.

The religious spirit, connected to a regional interpretation of baroque,

led, especially in the construction of new churches, to an

unprecedented landscape where geography and construction interact.

Two aspects define this image of the city: isolated monuments and

continuous lines of houses which recall Berber-Lusitanian street-cities.

Baroque, with no borders worldwide, has an own image there.

Churches are major monuments of Minas Gerais baroque cities,

most of the times appearing in mountain tops to complete the

hilly landscape with built volumes consisting of

white walls, ceramic roofs, bell towers which introduce the

rational constructivist geometry, and sounds, in the sensual, organic nature.

Minas Gerais Baroque is the name of this regional variation of the global style,

originating a truly urban society with its own image

where stone progressively replaces mud, and especially in the churches

a typical blend of curves, straight lines and planes is noticed in interiors;

presenting an ample central, symmetrical gateway sculpted in soapstone,

deriving elements such as pillars, columns, entablatures and pediments.

In these entablatures the dynamism and textures of the composition oppose

to the plain aspect of the lime-painted white masonry walls.

In the floor plan, these baroque churches deviate from traditional rectangle, adopting polygons and ovals where cylindrical campaniles stand out

from the church’s nave, featuring a semi-spherical pinnacle at the top.

These characteristics are quite visible in the churches, but even more

in the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi (fig. 6) and Rosary of the Black Men, with a floor plan consisting of three successive ellipses and circular facade,

a gallery of three arches and with original circular front towers.

The movement unveils local masters where artists in their isolation

were not stuck to a single aesthetic style and presented solutions which were

rich in diversity and eclecticism, disconnected from erudite models.

Antonio Francisco Lisboa, nicknamed Aleijadinho, stands out in the list,

a son to a known foreman and a black slave woman, he learned with his father and other local artists and from European pictures he could see,

and starts as a sculptor engraving in soapstone and reaches architecture.

His twelve prophets in Congonhas do Campo are widely known as well as

the 66 via sacra statues in the Sanctuary of  Bom Jesus de Matosinhos.

His works are featured in a number of cities in Minas Gerais such as

Tiradentes, Mariana, Ouro Preto, Sabará, São João Del Rey, Nova Lima in

gateways, images, altars, altarpieces, fountains and architectural projects.

Another name in highlight is Manuel da Costa Ataíde, or Master Ataíde,

a painter and engraver with large influence and a number of followers in his

paintings in church ceilings where he mastered colors and perspective.

Other distinguished artists are Antonio Pereira de Sousa Calheiros, architect

of above mentioned Church of Rosary of the Black Men (fig. 7) in Ouro Preto,

Jerônimo Felix Teixeira, who planned for the church facade in the Sanctuary of Congonhas do Campo; Manuel Francisco Lisboa and Francisco de Lima Cerqueira, who designed the Church of Carmo in Ouro Preto, among others.

But, out of all stages of this more than five-century-long history,

The modern era, from the end of the first half of the 20th century,

is the best indication of the character and desires of the Brazilian nation.

At the end of the 1930’s a number of politicians and academics made an effort

to place the modernist culture in the order of the day.

The first great gesture was the construction in Rio de Janeiro in 1937

of the building to house the Ministry of Education and Health

designed by a group of modernist architects

such as Carlos Leão, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Ernani Vasconcelos

Jorge Machado Moreira and Oscar Niemeyer, led by

Lucio Costa and advised by Le Corbusier,

who visited the place and determined some premises for the project.

But the most important politician for the transformation

of the national culture through architecture and arts

was Juscelino Kubitschek, who was the mayor of

Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais state,

and he decides to build a body of works around the Pampulha lake,

a city expansion area, and he invites the then young architect

Oscar Niemeyer who conceives five projects in different programs

among them the small church of Saint Francis of Assisi, a work to

become a new national reference for a sacred place (fig. 8).

The space is configured under a wide nave with arched cover and just like

in the colonial churches three minor spaces appear under the arches

opposite to the entrance to support the daily activities of the temple.

In the part turned to the lake, there is the main entrance with a cantilever

completed by the tower with a bell balancing vertical and horizontal lines.

The project relied on the participation of plastic artist Candido Portinari

in internal and external murals and a sequence of watercolors for via sacra.

The church which is the symbol of the city took 20 years

to be consecrated by local ecclesiastical authorities, because

its artistic panels were told to be of profane inspiration and it was conceived

by a communist and atheist architect, something unimaginable in times of

strong ideological polarization between political rightist and leftist trends.

The Pampulha complex features, in addition to the famous little church,

the Ballroom, formerly a party parlor, now an architecture and design gallery;

Pampulha Casino, now Museum of Modern Art, and the

Yacht Club, a private recreational institution for nautical practices.

The four differentiated buildings and architectural programs turned to

sacred, parties, entertainment (now culture) and sports,

suggested the standards of a new modern society,

surging in the optimism of the time and as history itself says,

‘invented the Brazilian modern architecture’ which is afterwards

recognized and advertised all over the planet.

The same public figure, JK, and the same architect Niemeyer work together once again to create the new federal capital, Brasilia, in the 1960’s.

Lucio Costa’s urban plan calls for the esplanade of ministries, in a

suggested complementarity between politics and religion, power and faith.

Metropolitan Cathedral (fig. 9) shows from the first sketches of the architect

the search for spiritual and superior in the ascending columns which define

the interior and open room for light entering through colorful glass windows.

Repeated columns make up a circular space, full of light.

The period in which Brasilia was constructed is associated with

the start of national industrialization, automotive and steelmaking,

the construction of the first large highways and telecommunications networks,

the worldwide recognition of the Brazilian music, through Bossa Nova,

sports successes in football, bringing a new self-esteem

and a sense of unit and identity to the young nation being formed.

There are many other examples of modernist sacred spaces in the country,

but we should highlight the Chapel of the Administrative Center of Bahia

in the city of Salvador, designed by architect João Filgueiras Lima, Lelé,

recognized for his sensitive work with pre-fabricated structures,

a kind of strategy at first inappropriate for the conception of a temple.

In the case, the proposition of a kind of concrete petal defines the space

through the circular repetition of the same module in variable heights.

Light enters through spaces left by such generating elements (fig. 10).

Lelé is now one of the main Brazilian architects, his lessons and works

reconcile the sensuality of the early days of the country’s modern architecture

– which questioned the hardness of European rationalism and functionalism –

to aspects of constructive sustainability, environmental comfort,

conscious use of materials, energy conservation and transference of concepts and attitudes toward the environment.

Equally defining an original approach is the project for

Chapel of Santana do Pé do Morro, conceived by architect Éolo Maia

in a rural area next to a colonial mansion, site to an old farm,

which becomes a place for reception and events of a steel company,

an activity of major importance for the regional economy.

The material produced by the company is featured as a structural element

involving the ruins of an old chapel that existed in the place (fig. 11).

Thin oxidized steel pillars make up room for glazed open spaces

which also feature wooden ornaments

referencing traditional techniques in the colonial architecture

of Ouro Preto, not distant from Ouro Branco where the chapel is.

In this project, the blend of past and present happens smoothly through

the involvement that the current structure promotes over the centenary.

The innocent character, even precarious, of the old construction is maintained

in the new building resulting from metal profiles with no finishing

revealing the divestment of a spiritual attitude, profound and simple.

This temple is protected by the national heritage service for bringing

in a unique and contemporary manner the religious spirit of the state,

and for blending geography, local materials and history times in a skilled way.

As from the 1980’s in the state of Minas Gerais, Éolo Maia has been the most

prominent figure of the architectural movement known as ‘Post-Brasilia’

which proposed a revision to the exhausted precepts of modernism,

to the sterility of the international style, to the country’s rediscovery

by blending memories and new technologies

in a possible utopia which announces the matters of the 21st century.

The small Chapel of Airs (fig. 12) that I designed in the city of Lagoa Santa

for the Brazilian Aeronautical Campus perhaps proposes that blend.

Defined by two continuous concrete shells which allow air to flow,

and sided by two transparent planes in the north and south faces, it suggests,

through the integrating figure of an airplane, the reason of the Campus,

the meeting between distances, between cardinal points,

between languages, between nations, between the rich and the poor,

the past and future, between the simple life and the widespread justice.

In a world with increasingly more proximity brought by digital networks

and phenomena of our times of global communication, we live in

a dilemma and we ask ourselves about the future every day, whether the attitudes that we take today will ensure better days for those who will come.

In this context, religion may surge as an aggregating factor

of cultures and creeds around the idea of sacred and divine,

but it may also generate disagreements and hate

giving place to conflicts between brothers, dividing races and territories.

We are anxiously waiting for times of ecumenical peace, of tolerance,

of multicultural dialogue which will definitely integrate the planet,

respecting and learning from the differences between peoples.

João Diniz, December 2009

Legend for the images:

Fig. 1 – First Mass in Brazil, painting by Vitor Meirelles, 1860

Fig. 2 – Indigenous peoples and open air celebration.

Fig. 3 – Congado and rites in the urban space

Fig. 4 – Candomble and the simplicity of worship spaces

Fig. 5 – Ouro Preto, city of many churches

Fig. 6 – Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, in Ouro Preto

Fig. 7 – Church of the Rosary of the Black Men, in Ouro Preto

Fig. 8 – Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pampulha, Belo Horizonte

Fig. 9 – Metropolitan Cathedral in Brasilia

Fig. 10 – Chapel of Administrative Center of Bahia, Salvador

Fig. 11 – Chapel of Santana do Pé do Morro, Ouro Branco, Minas Gerais

Fig. 12 – Chapel of Airs, Lagoa Santa, Minas Gerais

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