Aleijadinho is considered the greatest representative of the Baroque style in Minas Gerais and is known for his soapstone sculptures, wood carvings, altars and churches.
Biography of Antônio Francisco Lisboa, better known as Aleijadinho
Antônio Francisco Lisboa (1738-1814), better known by his nickname Aleijadinho, was born in Ouro Preto, the capital of colonial Minas Gerais.
Tradition has it that his father was a Portuguese carpenter and his mother an African slave.
A native of an inland province discovered and founded by Brazilian (and not Portuguese) explorers, and also typically Brazilian in his blood, a mixture of Portuguese and African, he is rightly acclaimed by his compatriots as a truly “national” figure.
Very little is known about his life.
He was reportedly a small, misshapen mulatto who suffered from a mysterious illness in the last few years of his life that made him so crippled that he could no longer walk; his fingers were curled and his face was so affected that it became hideous and repulsive.
Aware of the horror that his appearance inspired, he developed a morbid fear of being seen, going to extreme lengths.
However, even when hidden by awnings, he continued to work tirelessly, and it was his favorite slave, Mauricio, who tied the chisel and sledgehammer to his paralyzed hands.
When he was almost 60 years old, he took on the task of carving 64 life-size wooden images and twelve gigantic stone statues for the pilgrimage church of Congonhas do Campo, a small town located between São João del Rei and Ouro Preto.
It took him ten years to complete this task.
The Congonhas figures are very uneven in quality, as if reflecting the bumpy progress of the sculptor’s terrible illness, but they include works that are perhaps the most dramatic works of art in South America.
Obras de Aleijadinho at the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matozinhos in Congonhas MG
The struggle to maintain a modern civilization in the tropics, the creation of which was a unique historical event, demands inexhaustible energy and a refusal to admit defeat in the face of constant obstacles.
In this sense, Aleijadinho’s life is considered a symbolic example by his compatriots.
Furthermore, as an artist who developed an original style, abandoning the provincial imitation of European precedents, Aleijadinho became a figure of importance not only for Brazil, but for the entire American continent.
Indeed, he can be considered the pioneer who expressed in his art, in the most vigorous, impressive and decisive way, the emancipation of the New World from the Old.
The province of Minas Gerais, the setting for Aleijadinho’s monumental works, is one of the richest mineral regions in the world.
Its precious stones rival those of Ceylon and, among other immense resources, there are entire mountains of pure iron ore.
As early as the middle of the 16th century, some Portuguese explorers had reached the headwaters of the Jequitinhonha river, in the Espinhaço mountain range, penetrating this formidable mountain range, despite the hostile Indians, and reaching the São Francisco river basin.
To this period belongs the legend about the existence of a mountain range sparkling with precious metals, the Serra de Sabarabuçu.
It exerted the same magical attraction on the first explorers of Central Brazil as the land of the Omáguas, Lake Parima and the fabulous cities of Manoa and El Dorado exerted on Sir Walter Raleigh and other adventurers who traveled up the Orinoco and the Orellana.
The disappointment caused by the successive and costly failures that occurred in the second half of the 16th century discouraged new attempts to discover emeralds and silver, which were believed to exist in the interior of Brazil.
It was only in the 1660s that the search was restarted, in the last, stubborn hope of finding a remedy for Portugal’s economic bankruptcy, ruined by forty years of war with Holland and Spain.
The Portuguese Crown could no longer afford the expenses involved in the project, so it entrusted the task to local Brazilian explorers, the settlers of São Paulo, a native community, isolated from Portugal for so long, who spoke the Guarani language rather than Portuguese.
In their small wooden churches, there are carvings – evidently the work of indigenous or mixed-race artisans – that copied Portuguese Baroque altars, showing a curious resemblance to Romanesque reliefs in their flat, primitive style.
When King Afonso VI of Bragança wrote to the Paulistas to ask for their help, he couldn’t have chosen more suitable men for the proposed explorations.
Since 1603, when a bandeira, or expedition in search of indigenous people to enslave, commanded by Nicolau Barreto, penetrated as far as Potosí, in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru, the Paulista adventurers had been exploring the continent’s enormous hinterlands, attacking the villages of the Jesuit missionaries in order to dominate the indigenous nations of the interior.
In 1641, a flag was defeated at the confluence of the Mbororé and Uruguay rivers, about a thousand kilometers from São Paulo, in a three-day battle.
The cannons improvised by the Jesuits with stalks of the gigantic Iguaçu bamboo decided the conflict.
The Paulistas then realized that their expeditions in search of slaves were becoming less and less profitable. Therefore, as soon as they received the Royal Letter, they responded immediately, abandoning the hunt for Indians for the elusive silver and emerald mines.
The greatest of the bandeirantes of the time, Fernão Dias, self-styled “Emerald Hunter” and head of the illustrious Paes Leme family, spent seven years between 1674 and 1681 exploring the Espinhaço hinterland.
He died on the return journey after finding only semi-precious stones, but his heroic expedition set the course for the following explorers.
explorers who, finally, in the last decade of the 17th century, found gold deposits larger than any other discovered in the world.
The identity of the first discoverer is uncertain, but tradition indicates names such as the guide Bartolomeu Bueno de Siqueira and Garcia Rodrigues Paes Leme, son of Fernão Dias, who was later appointed hereditary guardian or guardian general of the Gold Mines.
The distribution of the mining settlements, located in three large groups on the banks of the main rivers where there was gold, corresponds to the triple division of the hydrographic basin of the gold region.
The pioneer camps soon grew into sizable villages, each with its own characteristics.
The northernmost settlement, Sabará, was founded on the banks of the Velhas River, a tributary of the São Francisco River, by a son-in-law of Fernão Dias, but was later colonized mainly by immigrants from Bahia and Pernambuco.
Sabará’s many beautiful colonial buildings include the chapel of Nossa Senhora do Ó2, decorated with panels painted in the Chinese style, and the monumental church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo.
Count Francis de Castelnau, who visited Sabará in 1843, drew attention to the latter church, noting: “le portail est orné aux parties extérieures et superiéures d’une sculpture assez bien executée par um manchot” (The frontispiece is ornamented on the outside and top with sculptures that are quite well executed by a one-armed man).
The decoration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ouro Preto was one of the first works undertaken by the tireless Aleijadinho, to whose legendary reputation Castelnau adds a further element of confusion, describing him as having only one hand.
The ornate rococo style of the churches at the end of the 18th century, closely associated with Aleijadinho, can best be appreciated in São João del Rei, the central city of the southern mines.
São João del Rei, on the banks of the River Mortes – a remote tributary of the River Plate that flows into the Atlantic 3,600 kilometers to the southwest – was founded by the bandeirante João de Siqueira Afonso, and retained a distinctly São Paulo character throughout the gold mining era.
In this city, there are two great monuments associated with the Aleijadinho style: the church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo and another, even more splendid, the church of São Francisco de Assis, whose façade so impressed Sir Richard Burton.
The third and most important concentration of gold mines was located between the tributaries of the headwaters of the Doce River, which flows eastwards, encompassing the streams of the mountains surrounding the Ouro Preto mountain range.
Here, a bandeirante founded a settlement on the banks of the Carmo stream, which in 1745 was elevated to the status of a town and the seat of the bishopric of Mariana.
Eight kilometers upstream, another pioneer, Antônio Dias de Oliveira, from São Paulo, began mining gold in 1698, on the site that would give rise to the old Vila Rica de Ouro Preto, the seat of government of the province and later of the state of Minas Gerais.
In the 18th century, the town had more than 30,000 inhabitants, a number that later fell to just over a quarter of that total.
In architecture and sculpture, Ouro Preto, as it is called today, was the center where the Aleijadinho style developed.
To the traveler who wanders through the tortuous mountains of Minas Gerais, visiting the ghost towns of these remote stone landscapes, it seems quite fitting that the main sculptor and decorator of the region’s churches was a fantastic and legendary figure, a cripple who was said to have lost the use of his extremities, working with a chisel and sledgehammer tied to his paralyzed hands.
As the current inhabitants of Minas Gerais live very much in the past, Aleijadinho is still a very real figure to them.
Thus, historian Salomão de Vasconcellos, while in Morro Grande, near Sabará, about twelve years ago, collected several fragmentary memories from an old man whose grandfather had known Aleijadinho personally.
The sculptor Alejadinho – always referred to by his baptismal name, Antônio Francisco – apparently spent a considerable amount of time in Morro Grande, working on the decoration of the parish church.
According to the old man’s account, he was a burly mulatto who always had two black men at his disposal to help him with tasks such as moving the blocks of stone he was carving.
He covered his head with a cloth when he went out, preferring, whenever possible, to work inside the church to avoid the sunlight.
On one occasion, because of a dispute over wages with the administration, all the workers employed on the construction ran away, including Antônio Francisco, who was, however, arrested in the nearby town of Caeté and brought back to complete his contract.
Aleijadinho died in 1814, a time when Minas Gerais’ alluvial gold was practically exhausted.
Today, only those splendid gold towns remain, unpopulated, isolated and difficult to access, almost unchanged since the beginning of the 19th century, as testimony to the old prosperity. The panorama that surrounds them is magnificent.
Arriving in Ouro Preto from the southwest, the road passes through an elevation, Alto do Morro.
Ouro Preto lies just below Itacolomi, a strangely shaped peak topped by two gigantic black iron spires.
Once used as a landmark by the São Paulo flags, it dominates the city to the southeast, forming a fantastic backdrop.
This Ouro Preto city, formerly called Vila Rica – where Aleijadinho was born, probably lived most of his life and died – lies on the northern slope of the deep, stony valley of the Carmo stream. Thirteen baroque churches crown the slopes and hills that cross the site.
The steep streets are paved with slate, iron and granite, and six massive 18th-century bridges cross the stream and its tributary creeks.
In the midst of dense groups of colonial houses and tropical gardens, well-stocked with clumps of banana trees and one or two palm trees, stand several private palaces, built in the 18th century by large gold miners and government officials.
Sixteen monumental fountains bearing Latin inscriptions supply the city with plenty of water – water purer than Latin, as Sir Richard Burton noted.
On the north side of the hill of Santa Quitéria, which cuts the city more or less in half, is the fortified palace of the Governors, in a large square. On the other side you can see a huge fortress-like prison, whose ornate façade is reminiscent of Rome’s Capitoline Hill.
To the east of Santa Quitéria hill is the parish church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição de Antônio Dias, the original settlement in São Paulo, and to the west, the parish church of Nossa Senhora do Pilar, the parish of the Portuguese immigrant community.
The imposing public buildings on the central spur symbolize the authority that overpowered and kept under control the isolated (in fact, for a long time hostile) communities of eighteenth-century Vila Rica.
To this day, the city of Ouro Preto has retained many traces of the old division between the two parishes, which reflect an antagonism between ideas and ways of life.
The Portuguese immigrants in Ouro Preto were conservative and tended towards intolerance, calling the Paulistas caboclos, in contemptuous reference to their partly Indian blood and simple manners, while the latter called the supplanters emboabas, or “feathered legs”, an elaborate insult that alluded to the style of their clothing.
The final defeat of the caboclos, at a clear disadvantage in their fight against the emboabas, was symbolized in Vila Rica by a feast of unparalleled magnificence, held in 1733, known as the Eucharistic Triumph.
The central event of this celebration was a procession of allegorical figures, both sacred and profane, including the four winds and the seven main celestial bodies, represented as Roman gods and goddesses and literally covered in gold and precious stones.
The pretext for this procession, and the subsequent festivities and fireworks displays, was the transfer of the Blessed Sacrament to the newly built parish church of Nossa Senhora do Pilar.
In this theatrical way, the Emboaba parish church had its supremacy proclaimed and confirmed over the rival parish church of Antônio Dias, whose inauguration did not receive such extravagant recognition. This sealed the irrevocable subordination of São Paulo to the Portuguese community.
Aleijadinho belonged, like his immigrant father, to the parish of Antônio Dias, and was buried in this church.
The Eucharistic Triumph had taken place five years before his birth and, by the time he came of age, the old hostility between the Paulistas and the Emboabas had almost been forgotten, overtaken by the new threat, far more frightening for the Portuguese authorities, of the 1789 conspiracy known as the Inconfidência Mineira.
Likewise, the old ecclesiastical rivalry between the two parishes had been overcome by the large-scale construction of brotherhood churches, associations of laypeople gathered under the protection of a patron saint or the Virgin Mary.
The Third Orders of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Francis of Assisi were particularly notable for their construction projects from the 1760s onwards.
These Franciscan and Carmelite churches are also the main monuments of the new Aleijadinho style, which represented an artistic revolution in the colony, contradicting in almost every respect the Mannerist architecture of Portuguese derivation, which until then had exercised absolute predominance.
It is natural to compare the successful artistic revolution carried out by Aleijadinho in the 1770s and 1780s with the unsuccessful political revolution planned by the inconfidentes in 1789.
But although he belonged to the same generation as the conspirators – and although it can be said of him that in the artistic field his work reflects the emancipation of his land from Portugal – a great gulf, represented by his mestizo blood, separated him from the inconfidentes, his contemporaries.
It’s true that one of the most ardent inconfidentes, Colonel Ignácio José de Alvarenga Peixoto, even suggested proclaiming the freedom of mestizo and mulatto slaves, a small part of the slave community, but even this small concession was considered by his companions to be hasty and dangerous.
The mulattoes of Minas Gerais, a large and ever-growing part of the population, were viewed with suspicion by the white upper class.
Theoretically free, they had a servile status, since their freedom was largely nothing more than an empty gift. They therefore played no part in the 1789 conspiracy, which for them meant little more than an attempt to change the ruling class by replacing the Portuguese whites with native whites.
The mulattos were more likely to support the slaves than the masters. Apart from their brotherhoods, which offered a religious outlet for their frustrated energy, the mulattos had no social institution capable of giving their members support and self-confidence.
Thus, although they were a potentially revolutionary element in Minas Gerais, they lacked the cohesion that enabled, for example, the mulatto community in Haiti to play an active role in an insurrection there at the same time.
The limited opportunities that Aleijadinho suffered, due to his inferior social condition as a mulatto, is a disadvantage that further highlights the tour de force of his achievements.
All the illustrious foreign travelers who visited Minas Gerais in the 19th century were impressed by some of the aspects of this tour de force. “In the manner of his sculptures,” wrote Auguste Saint-Hilaire, “there is a certain air of grandeur which indicates an extremely pronounced natural talent in this artist who had never traveled and had no examples to instruct him.”
This paradox and the uniqueness of his work – which had no comparable predecessors or successors in Minas Gerais – give special interest to the study of the origins of his artistic genius.
His nineteenth-century biographer, Rodrigo Ferreira Brêtas, says only that “his knowledge of drawing, architecture and sculpture had been obtained at his father’s practical school, and perhaps at that of the draughtsman and painter João Gomes Baptista, employed as an opener of dies at the Casa da Fundição in this capital (Ouro Preto)”.
João Gomes Baptista and Aleijadinho’s father, Manoel Francisco Lisboa, were men of a very different caliber. The latter, a carpenter and later also a bricklayer, ended his career as a master builder and was always essentially a craftsman.
The former, on the other hand, was a skilled craftsman specializing in metals, having studied at one of the best schools in Western Europe, the Lisbon Mint, where he must have been influenced by the international group of artists and craftsmen gathered there under the patronage of King João V.
However, whatever the importance attributed to Gomes Baptista and Manoel Francisco in Aleijadinho’s formation, there is a general consensus that the influence of both is insufficient to explain certain aspects of the student’s work.
Thus, enormous efforts were made to nominate other masters, with several names being suggested, all of which turned out to be unacceptable. One critic abandoned the task, declaring in despair that Aleijadinho is a myth.
The most likely hypothesis is that João Gomes Baptista was, in fact, his only drawing master, having acquired additional information and, above all, ideas from various literary sources, such as engravings and illustrated books.
Be that as it may, Aleijadinho’s work presents a sometimes bewildering variety, which adds strength to the paradox pointed out by Saint-Hilaire: “a sculptor who never traveled and had no examples to instruct him”.
Superimposed on the basic rococo style, he used designs that have been related to Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance and even Oriental sources.
If Saint-Hilaire’s paradox is accentuated by the variety of his work, Burton’s paradox – “the handiwork of a man without hands” – is underlined by the volume of his production.
Burton found “the values of the ubiquitous Aleijadinho scattered throughout the province of Minas Gerais”, but at that time the artist was credited with much that was not his own.
Written references from the 19th century record, based on tradition and common opinion, seventeen churches and chapels related to his work.
But what is proven to be his work, according to the evidence of documents, is already an enormous work, even taking into account the help he received from slaves and apprentices.
The psychological explanation is that, isolated from normal social life, he sublimated all his considerable energies with passionate devotion, channeling them only into his art.
His most significant works were for three churches in
- São Francisco de Assis in Ouro Preto (façade and interior)
- São Francisco de Assis de São João del Rei (façade)
- Santuário de Congonhas do Campo (images for the chapels of the Via Crucis and statues in the front churchyard)
Works by Aleijadinho at the São Francisco de Assis in Ouro Preto (façade and interior)
- Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ouro Preto (façade and interior),
- Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Sabará (façade and interior)
- Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in São João del Rei (façade)
The long list of other works proven to be his or attributed to him, although extensive, is of relatively little artistic importance compared to what can be found in the six churches mentioned.
There is still the problem of the degree of his personal participation in the sculptures and carvings that are demonstrably attributed to him, or recognized as his authorship by general consensus.
To what extent did he use the services of these assistants? We cannot give a precise answer, but there is no doubt that he carried out his most important works in Ouro Preto, Congonhas and Sabará, and perhaps also in São João del Rei.
And since the designs and creative impetus for all his work were his own, it seems irrelevant to his ultimate reputation as an artist whether his assistants contributed any part of the work.
Aleijadinho was basically a carver or sculptor of ornaments, having executed figures and ornaments for the façades and interiors of churches.
He worked with wood and stone.
But on the façades of his churches, the sculpture is so integrated into the architectural project that Aleijadinho also lives up to the title of architect, in a way, alongside that of sculptor.
It is said that this dual status was recognized in his own time, although the formal distinctions between the role of stonemason, architect and sculptor were apparently less precise than they are today.
Estimating the importance of his work cannot therefore be limited to his sculpture and carving.
It must also include the style of decorated architecture that predominated for a short time in the main urban centers of Minas Gerais in the last decades of the 18th century and the first years of the 19th.
Brazil’s cultural emancipation from Portugal in the second half of the 18th century, along with its inevitable corollary, the development of a Brazilian national character, is closely related to the mulattoes, whether they were priests, preachers, missionaries, painters, musicians or sculptors.
Their genius for music and the plastic arts was inherited from the African side, and they did not compete with their Portuguese contemporaries in literature.
Aleijadinho personifies the classic example of the mulatto whose immense intelligence, full of energy and potentially rebellious, was sublimated in religious art.
The traditional stories about him, narrated by Rodrigo Ferreira Brêtas, are closer to reality than the truth itself, such as the comments about the mulatto’s temperament – particularly those referring to his contradictory behavior towards his slaves.
For example, he even signed letters of release for them, but kept them locked away in a box, so that they were never freed.
The most striking cases reported by Brêtas, however, are those that refer to the hostile and resentful way in which he treated the Portuguese noblemen with whom he came into contact.
These stories date from 1797 to 1803, when Minas Gerais was ruled by General Bernardo José de Lorena, who was later elevated to Count of Sarzedas and appointed Viceroy of Portuguese India.
It is these stories, fanciful but symbolic, that give a particular color to the interpretation of Aleijadinho’s last works as expressions of social protest and the yearning for independence that would free the country from a brutal, slave-owning ruling class.
Thus, in Congonhas do Campo, the figure of the prophet Isaiah can be seen as a reflection of the sculptor’s unconscious identification with his model, a desire to associate himself with this formidable Old Testament figure who denounced the very same abuses and corruptions that infected the society in which Aleijadinho himself lived.
His emotional ambivalence may also have led him to identify with the noble and melancholic figures of Christ, undergoing the sufferings of the Via Crucis, with his Mary Magdalene in tears, and even the two exceptionally expressive figures of the pensive Judas, full of remorse, from the Last Supper, or even that of the Bad Thief from the Crucifixion, defiant but strangely tragic.
The Roman soldiers in the Via Crucis groups are depicted with excessive, cartoonish noses that give them an inhuman, almost diabolical appearance. “Of course,” Burton pondered, “these Roman nosed warriors could never have existed unless they used their nasal appendage like an elephant uses its trunk.”
It has already been suggested that Aleijadinho’s intention, perhaps known to some of his contemporaries, was to satirize and symbolically express in these images his hatred of the arrogant Cavalry soldiers who acted as policemen in the mining province, responsible for many brutalities.
This interpretation of the Congonhas figures is as attractive as it is plausible, and Aleijadinho can thus be considered a precursor to Orozco and Portinari, in whose works social criticism was particularly prominent and expressive.
But this interpretation can only be applied to part of Aleijadinho’s oeuvre. In the figures of the Via Crucis, there is certainly reason to suspect a social message, but in the statues of the prophets, on the other hand, the artist was so interested in the individual personalities – conceived through his study of the prophetic books – that this predominant concern made any social implications secondary and recessive.
The prophets of Congonhas were carved in stone, while the images of the Via Crucis and an imposing figure of St. George in Ouro Preto were carved in wood.
In general, Aleijadinho’s work in wood is more expressionist, more prone to sarcasm and caricature, and therefore more clearly intended as social criticism, while his work in stone appears more noble and profound, as if he adapted his manner to the nature of each material.
Aleijadinho’s masterpieces have a spirit that goes beyond local and temporal limitations.
The breadth of his interests and his curiously impersonal approach are revealed in his depictions of racial types.
The impersonal attitude is demonstrated by the fact that he never depicted a black or a mulatto in his sculptures.
This is all the more remarkable given that two of his artist friends, his half-brother, Father Félix Lisboa, and his colleague Manoel da Costa Athaide, did this repeatedly.
The former carved images of African saints, such as St. Anthony (the black man from Catagerona) and St. Benedict (the Moor from Palermo) in the Church of the Rosary in Ouro Preto, while the latter, a painter of great charm and interest, decorated the ceiling of the nave of St. Francis of Assisi in Ouro Preto with the heads of mulatto cherubs.
While it’s true that he avoided black people, Aleijadinho showed an extraordinary interest in other racial types. For his São Jorge, he reportedly took an arrogant nobleman (Colonel José Romão) as his model, resulting in a beautiful portrait of a traditional physiognomic type that can still be found, for example, in the Azores.
In Congonhas do Campo, leaving aside the Roman noses that horrified Burton, there are a series of masterly studies of oriental, Jewish, Arab and Mongolian features among the prophets.
In this aspect of his work, as in many others, Aleijadinho transcends the limitations of his land and his time through the astonishing scope of his imagination.
One might think that the wide and varied interests that come through in his art have symbolic significance for the Portuguese empire, which in the 18th century still encompassed the entire world, from the coasts of China and India to the far reaches of Africa and Brazil, with Indonesian and Atlantic islands in between.
Long gone were the days when the great Albuquerque had planned, with high hopes of success, to storm Mecca to rescue Jerusalem in exchange for the remains of the prophet.
Portuguese supremacy in the eastern seas had long since been overtaken, but the only European nation that had managed to establish a city in Chinese territory continued to exert great influence in South and East Asia, through the three hundred missions it still maintained, spread throughout the Indian peninsula and archipelago.
The wealth of eighteenth-century Minas Gerais therefore supported the unlimited aspirations of the Portuguese Crown and strengthened the entire Lusitanian world.
The gold from the Serra do Espinhaço allowed King João V to reconquer the interior of Goa from the Maratha princes and guaranteed the goodwill of the Celestial Empire, through costly gestures such as sending ambassador Alexandre Metelo de Sousa e Meneses to Emperor Yung Cheng.
Thus, we can consider the gold towns of the Minas Gerais hinterland as economic centers of a maritime empire in decline, but still imposing and of enormous extension. And perhaps it is from this perspective that the art of Aleijadinho should be evaluated.