A Wonder of the World: The Christ the Redeemer Statue

(Photo by Jorge Lascar licenced through CC-BY-2.0)

Standing over 200 feet high on a 2,300 foot high mountain, this colossal depiction of Jesus has become a famous symbol of the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and a new wonder of the world.

Following the end of World War I, many members of the primarily Roman Catholic community in Brazil were concerned about what they felt was a growing "godlessness" around them. Some of this was the result of the country becoming a republic in 1893 causing the official separation of the church from the state. Members of Catholic community felt that they could reclaim the country for Christianity by constructing a prominent symbol in Rio, which was then the capital city. One idea was to build a huge statue of Christ. This proposal had been around since the 1850's when it had been suggested by the Vincentian priest, Pedro Maria Boss, but not much had been done about it.

Initially, it was proposed that a bronze statue of Christ would be built on the Sugar Loaf (a giant, steep, mound of rock at the entrance to Rio's Guanabara Bay). However, it was decided that the peak of Mount Corcovado, which was higher and overlooked the city, would be a better location.

Da Silva Costa Joins the Project

The Catholic Circle of Rio started raising money for the project in 1920 and Da Silva Costa, a local engineer, was chosen to design it. Costa went through several drawings before deciding on the one that was eventually used. One of his earliest sketches was of Christ carrying a cross and holding a globe in his outstretched hand. This particular drawing was ridiculed by some as "Christ with a ball" design. Working with artist Carlos Oswald, Da Silva finally developed the design we see today with Christ with his arms open wide, both forming a cross with his body, and at the same time seeming to welcome those who would come to him.

Seven Quick Facts
Location: Mount Corcovado, 2300 feet (700m) above Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Construction: Started in 1922 and finished in 1931.
Height: 98 feet (30m) without pedestal and 125 feet (38m) including the pedestal.
Weight: 635 metric tons.
Made of: Steel reinforced concrete covered with soapstone tiles.
Designers: Engineer Da Silva Costa with sculptors Paul Landowski and Gheorghe Leonida.
Other: Cost is equivalent of US $250,000 (which is $3,400,000 in 2016 dollars).

While the design seemed to be just what was desired, to actually construct a colossal statue with outstretched, unsupported arms was a difficult engineering problem. Costa finally settled on using steel reinforced concrete, a new building material at the time, to construct the edifice. Costa went to France to seek the council of Albert Caquot, an expert in concrete. While there he spoke to a number of artists and finally settled upon sculptor Paul Landowski to create the artistic part of the work. Landowski, in turn, commissioned sculptor Gheorghe Leonida to create the face. They decided to do the statue in the art deco style, which was popular at the time.

While concrete solved the structural problems, Costa felt it was too rough a material for the surface of the statue. Taking inspiration from a newly-constructed fountain he'd seen in an arcade on the Champs Elysees, he realized that small tiles would allow him the to cover the curving surface of the statue in a smooth material. As far as Costa was aware, this was the first time tiling would be used to cover a statue. It took 6 million of the triangular 1 ¼ inches by 1 ¼ inches(3cm) tiles to cover the colossus.

A Soapstone Surface

Costa chose soapstone because he had seen it used in sculptures by 18th Century Brazilian sculptor Aleijadinho. Costa had observed that Aleijadinho's works showed little sign of wear even after 120 years, proving that the material was extremely durable.

An aerial view of the statue and surrounding platforms.(Photo by Gustavo Facci licenced through CC-BY-2.0)

The actual construction of the statue started in 1922 and lasted seven years. The statue was opened to the public on October 12, 1931, and cost the equivalent of US $250,000 (which is $3,400,000 in 2016 dollars). It stands 98 feet tall (30m) without its pedestal and 125 feet (38m) with it. The figure's arms span a total length of 92 feet (28m). Costa made sure that it was big enough to be easily seen from the city below.

Lightning Strikes

Maintaining such a large, concrete statute in the tropical climate of Rio has its challenges. Mt. Mount Corcovado's tropical location makes it a natural target for heavy storms, strong winds and lightning strikes. The statue is usually hit by lightning from two to four times a year. A set of lightning rods is built into the structure of the statue, but getting them properly grounded at the top of the mountain is a problem. The granite of the peak is not naturally very conductive. While most lightning strikes do no damage, two in January of 2014 scorched the back of the head and blasted the fingertip off the middle finger of one hand. Authorities had to act quickly to get the colossal statue back in shape before the capital swelled with visitors for the World Cup in June of that year.

Workers can enter the statue via a door in the hem of the robe, just behind where the right ankle would be. From there, they can climb stairs up the interior the equivalent of 12 stories to the chest where they can cross into narrow tunnels that extend out the arms or up through a trap door on the right shoulder. From hidden exits like these, they can repel like mountain climbers down the outside of the statue to repair damaged sections.

Not all attacks on the statue have been from nature, however. In 2010 during a restoration, a pair of graffiti artists scaled the scaffolding at night and spray painted the chest, arms and head. The city's mayor, Eduardo Paes, called the act a "crime against the nation," and the perpetrators eventually turned themselves in.

One of the problems that concerns those in charge of the restoration is the lack of appropriately colored soapstone to replace the tiles. The quarries near the city of Ouro Preto that produced the stone used in the tile have run out of the light gray rock originally used on the statue. As a result, the restorers have been forced to work with darker versions of the stone. It is expected that over time as more and more of the tiles are worn and need to be replaced, the figure will slowly change color.

Even with the famous statue aging and slowly turning color, it is expected that Christ the Redeemer will continue to be a popular symbol of the city and a well-liked spot for tourists to come to as they visit the city of Rio de Janeiro.

(Photo by Lima Andruška licenced through CC-BY-2.0)

Copyright Lee Krystek 2017. All Rights Reserved.