The Sanctuary of Bom Senhor Jesus de Matozinhos is home to one of the most valuable monuments on the planet and is located in the city of Congonhas, in the central region of Minas Gerais.
Geniuses such as Aleijadinho and Mestre Ataíde not only created true masterpieces, but also promoted a great coming together of the art of Minas Gerais in the 18th century.
Meanwhile, the ancient Congonhas do Campo has stood the test of time.
Congonhas was founded by miners in 1734 and soon became one of the richest parishes of the 18th century.
In the current city of Congonhas, however, very little of the splendor of the past remains.
The iron mining that sustained its economy after the decline of gold disfigured its colonial features and covered it with modest and ugly buildings.
Its most precious asset has fortunately survived: on the hill of Maranhão, the highest part of the city, stands the magnificent Basilica of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, in whose atrium are the twelve soapstone prophets sculpted by Aleijadinho.
Also by the master are the images of Christ’s footsteps, small chapels that dot the path to the basilica.
The ensemble – the sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos – which was awarded the title of World Cultural Heritage by Unesco in 1985, is the high point of Brazilian Baroque and one of the most spectacular religious monuments in the world.
There are also other historic buildings in Congonhas, scattered around the city center and in outlying districts; the tourist offices are efficient in providing information and guides.
The town of Congonhas, however, does not have a good hotel structure and should be visited in one day from Ouro Preto, although it is possible to stay in nearby Esmeril, 17 kilometers away.
Congonhas is 50 kilometers from Ouro Preto via the Estrada Real (or 140 kilometers via the BR-040), 78 from Belo Horizonte, 370 from Rio de Janeiro and 580 from São Paulo;
SANCTUARY OF BOM JESUS DE MATOSINHOS
The Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos is an architectural and landscape complex made up of a church, a churchyard and six attached chapels, located in the Brazilian municipality of Congonhas, in the state of Minas Gerais.
The church is an important example of Brazilian colonial architecture, with a rich interior decoration in gilded woodwork and paintings;
In 1757, in fulfillment of a promise, the Portuguese Feliciano Mendes began building the architectural complex of the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos.
The work, inspired by the sanctuaries of Braga and Matosinhos in Portugal, would take more than sixty years to complete and would involve the work of the most important artisans and artists from the Minas region.
The basilica of Senhor do Bom Jesus, built on top of the Maranhão hill, is one of the first examples of rococo in Minas Gerais.
The façade has recessed towers and an imposing soapstone pediment worked in volutes; inside, there are three beautiful altarpieces also in the rococo style, as well as torch-bearing angels sculpted in 1778 by Francisco Servas, four reliquaries made by Aleijadinho’s workshop and two dragon lamp holders that betray the Chinese influence in the lands of gold.
The paintings were done by two of the greatest artists of the time: Bernardo Pires, responsible for the ceiling of the chancel, and João Nepomuceno, author of the ceiling of the nave and panels with scenes from the life of Jesus.
At the back of the basilica is the room of ex-votos, paintings, portraits and wax sculptures with which devotees record and give thanks for the graces they have received.
The collection includes 89 pieces from the 18th to the 20th century, which make up a moving testimony to popular faith.
Of great historical and artistic value, the collection was listed by Iphan in 1981.
The Passion Steps bring together 66 life-size cedar images carved directly by Aleijadinho by his assistants between 1796 and 1799, some of them polychromed by Manuel da Costa Ataíde.
Spread over six chapels, the images illustrate seven stages – “steps” – of the Way of the Cross (in the fourth chapel, there are two steps).
Restored in 2004 as part of the Monumenta project, the chapels are closed, but you can see inside through the windows.
The prophets were sculpted in soapstone by Aleijadinho and his disciples between 1800 and 1805; they are the last great works of the master, who was already weakened by illness.
Serious and imposing, they seem to spring from the parapet of the walls that surround the churchyard to welcome the visitor.
The Congonhas Tourism Board offers a guide service, which must be booked in advance; a guided tour of the sanctuary takes an average of three hours. Praça da Basílica, s/n.
THE SIX STEPS
1. Last Supper
Eleven figures represent Christ’s last supper.
In the scene, Jesus tells the apostles that one of them will soon betray him, and they react violently.
Aleijadinho is believed to have personally executed the images, which are of exceptional quality; the figures behind the table were sculpted half-body.
The pilgrim begins his visit to the Via Sacra chapels at the foot of the ascent to the Holy Supper with the apostles around the table with Christ in the center and two servants on the sides.
It is one of the most expressive because of the position of the hands and faces that discuss who would betray Jesus. The first sculptures are of the whole body and then only the trunks are displayed on stools.
Ataíde’s polychromy is discreet in pastel tones.
The Christs and main figures are still by the master Aleijadinho in the other chapels and the secondary figures are left to the artisans in his workshop.
The scene set by Aleijadinho around the table shows the moment all the apostles were upset when they were informed that one of them was going to betray the Master.
The groups formed from the center – Christ, John and Peter – are echoed in the theatrical gestures of the arms and hands that show nervousness and the heads turned towards the central scene.
The muscles in their necks, emphasized by the necklines of their tunics and framed by their beards and hair, foreshadow the wrinkles on their foreheads and the perplexed looks in dialogue with Christ’s fixed gaze.
Two minions and the two full-body sculptures at the ends conceal the baroque scenography of the remaining half-body sculptures, arranged on stools.
2. Agony in the Olive Garden
Jesus prays in the Garden of Olives, while the apostles sleep; at the top of the chapel, an angel offers him a cup of gall.
This scene is also entirely attributed to Aleijadinho.
The set of the Garden is visually very clear due to the exact number of sculptures that make up the scene: the Angel with the chalice of agony, Christ accepting the sacrifice and the apostles Peter, James and John.
Master Ataíde’s painting of the scene guides the position of the Angel with the chalice and the gaze of Christ sitting on the rock.
The position of the hands, one pointing to the earth and the other to accept his sacrifice, refers to the drama of choosing death, reflected in the gaze on the infinite, sweating blood for salvation.
3. Jesus’ arrest
Roman soldiers, brandishing spears and torches. They approach Jesus to arrest him.
The images of Jesus and Peter are by Aleijadinho; the soldiers, caricatures, were executed by assistants.
Four full-body figures stand out in this arrest scene – Judas at the moment of arrest, St. Peter with his sword in hand and Christ healing Malco’s ear.
The drama of human intentions is exposed in Peter’s intemperate gesture when he wounds the high priest’s soldier – and those of perplexity – the intertwining of arms, from Malchus to Christ and that of the traitorous Judas containing Peter who will also deny the Master before the cock crows three times.
Several soldiers executed by Aleijadinho’s workshop complete this well-known and popular scene of betrayal.
4. Flagellation and Crowning with Thorns
The two steps occupy a small space. In the first scene, Jesus, tied to a low column, seems to be haughtily enduring the whip.
In the second, he is sitting, desolate, with a crown of thorns on his head. Only the two images of Christ are attributed to Aleijadinho.
This chapel houses two scenes, the scourging and the crowning of thorns, causing a visual accumulation. In both scenes, the bodies of Christ stand out, in which the master displays all his genius and maturity.
The Christ of the Column, who could be an Ecce Homo, takes a step backwards while his arms with the hands tied show his willingness to sacrifice.
If he is Ecce Homo, he shows all his dignity as he is presented to be judged by the people. His blood pulses in his veins as he shows all the muscles of his strained body.
The sculpture takes on greater dignity in the group of crowning thorns.
Framed by two soldiers, one showing the inscription INRI and the other with the popular green cane, the royal sceptre, the master thrusts one of his legs forward, his arms with the hands tied in contrast to the kneecap.
The haughty face and flowing hair evoke divine royalty crowned by the thorns of sacrifice.
5. Ascent to Calvary
The well-known Christ of the cross on his back, Aleijadinho’s masterpiece, is in this chapel.
The image’s crumpled hands and pained expression give the scene extraordinary dramatic appeal.
This scene shows the moment when Christ ascended Calvary and took pity on the women of Jerusalem who were weeping over his suffering. A woman with a child and another in tears look up the hill to Calvary.
The figure of Christ has a wide stride confirmed by the tunic in contrasting shades – white and purple – and the S-shaped cloak enveloping the two planes of the figure who, with wide gestures, bends down, climbs with effort, grasps the cross and looks deeply at the weeping women.
The small figure of the child with the nails would also fit into the crucifixion scene.
The Christ nailed to the cross is the very image of helplessness and pain and was sculpted by Aleijadinho.
The figure of the Bad Thief (on Jesus’ right) is also attributed to the master, who must have interfered in the execution of Mary Magdalene and the Centurion, a soldier wearing a turban similar to some of the soapstone prophets in the churchyard.
The last scene to be visited by pilgrims is the Crucifixion with Christ surrounded by the two thieves, executioner soldiers, others playing dice on the mantle, Magdalene and the centurion.
The eleven figures form visual groups of interest without a single focus of univocity.
The central one has the body of Christ on the cross, the executioner soldier kneeling and Magdalene about to prostrate herself. The two soldiers vie for the cloak on the left and the two thieves, Dimas the good and Gestas the bad, on the right turn their gaze to the One who was condemned for no fault of his own.
The churchyard is decorated with twelve soapstone statues of prophets and the chapels contain polychrome wooden sculptural groups depicting steps from the Passion of Christ, statues created by Aleijadinho and his assistants.
Between 1800 and 1805, the Minas Gerais artist Aleijadinho (1730-1814), a sexagenarian and very ill, created a series of monumental sculptures that would definitively mark his work. His last major project, the 12 soapstone prophets.
Other top artists took part in the construction and decoration work, including Francisco de Lima Cerqueira, João Nepomuceno Correia e Castro and Mestre Ataíde. The complex was built in several stages between 1757 and 1875.
The statue of Isaiah, at the entrance to the staircase, is attributed to the joint work of Aleijadinho and his assistants.
Made up of two blocks of stone joined at shoulder height, the torso is badly proportioned, but the magnificent head was made by the master.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “When the seraphim were celebrating the Lord, one of them brought a hot coal to my lips.” Isaiah, chapter 6.
Located to the left of Isaiah at the entrance, the statue of Jeremiah was partially executed by Aleijadinho, who sculpted only the head of the image, on whose face he imprinted an expression of serene dignity.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “I mourn the disaster of Judea and the ruin of Jerusalem, and I beg (my people) to return to the Lord.” Jeremiah, chapter 35.
Considered one of the least significant pieces in the set, it has anatomical errors and was certainly made by Aleijadinho’s workshop.
The turban that appears on this and other sculptures reveals the influence of European engravings of the time, in which biblical characters were often represented in “Turkish fashion”.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “I foretell the coming of Christ in the flesh and the last times of the world, and I warn the godly.” Baruch, chapter 1.
The movement of the body, the bending of the arm and the expression of the face are magnificent. The sculpture, made up of two blocks of stone, was executed directly by Aleijadinho; it is believed that there was little or no intervention by his assistants.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “I describe the four beasts in the midst of the flames, the horrible wheels and the ethereal throne.” Ezekiel, chapter 1.
It is believed that Aleijadinho executed this statue alone, carved from a single block of stone and considered to be one of the most beautiful in the set.
The body is anatomically perfect and the expressiveness of the face is spectacular. The lion prostrate at Daniel’s feet completes the grandeur of the image.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “Imprisoned (by order of the king) in the den of lions, I am set free, unharmed by the help of God.” Daniel, chapter 6.
With noble features and correct proportions, the statue of Hosea, which stands before that of Daniel, was probably executed by Aleijadinho with little or no intervention from his assistants.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “Take the adulteress, the Lord said to me. I will do it: she shall become my wife, she shall conceive and give birth.” Hosea, chapter 1.
With his head turned to the side, the prophet seems to be observing the landscape of the Maranhão mountain.
The piece, carved in two blocks joined at shoulder height, is believed to have been sculpted directly by Aleijadinho.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “They have gone to Judea to tell of the evil they will bring upon the earth: the caterpillar, the locust, the bramble and the jellyfish (rust).” Joel, chapter 1, v.4.
This prophet, who occupies the opposite and symmetrical position to Joel, turns his face towards the sky, his lips ajar and his expression enraptured.
The folds of his tunic are interrupted by the jets of water from the whale at his feet. The image was sculpted by Aleijadinho.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “Swallowed by a whale, I remain three days and three nights in the belly of the fish; Then I come to Nineveh.” Jonah, chapter 2.
While the other prophets have serious expressions, Amos, dressed in simple shepherd’s clothes, appears calm and smiling. Carved from a single block of stone, it has some imperfections on the right side; it is speculated that it was only intended to be seen from the left.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “I am a shepherd first, and a prophet second, and I accuse the fat cows and the rulers of Israel.” Amos, chapter 1.
As it occupies a noble position in the churchyard, it must have been worked on with special dedication by Aleijadinho, who achieved an impressive result.
The raised right arm follows the vertical lines of the basilica and seems to invoke divine justice.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “I question you, Idumeans and Gentiles. I announce to you and foretell you mourning and destruction. “Abdias, chapter 1.
In a symmetrical position to Abdias, Habacuc raises his left arm to the sky in a gesture of greatness and strength.
Like Abdias, he is a figure of impact worked on by Aleijadinho with little participation from his workshop assistants.
The prophet carries a phylactery, on which is inscribed: “Babylon, Babylon, I question you, I question you, taking from Chaldea: But to you, O gracious God, I sing and psalms.” Habakkuk, chapter 1.
The figure is badly proportioned and looks misaligned. The ornaments on the robes are also coarser than those on the other prophets.
Scholars believe that the execution of this prophet was left almost entirely to Aleijadinho’s workshop.
The prophet carries a phylactery on which is inscribed: “I expose the punishment that awaits sinful Nineveh. I declare that Assyria will be completely destroyed.” Nahum, chapter 1.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS IN CONGONHAS MG
It is a large circular building with rooms arranged around a large central square.
Today, as well as administrative offices, the Pilgrimage houses a craft store, snack bars, a space for exhibitions and events, the Museum of Sacred Art, the Museum of Mineralogy, the Museum of Memory and a room dedicated to the Portuguese city of Matosinhos.
One of the portico towers houses the Congonhas tourist support service.
Al. Cidade Matosinhos de Portugal, 153.
2. HISTORICAL BUILDINGS
Congonhas still has a few buildings left over from the gold rush, mainly in Beco dos Canudos, in the center: the beautiful cobblestones and several colonial houses remain, most of which have been converted into craft and souvenir stores.
The churches include the Nossa Senhora da Conceição church, built in 1734, with a soapstone portico carved by Aleijadinho (pça. Sete de Setembro, s/n).
Also in the city center, the 19th century São José parish church stands out for its curved lines (r. Bom Jesus, Centro).
The unique church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário (pça. do Rosário, s/n, Rosário) was built for the slaves at the beginning of the town’s formation, in the early years of the 18th century.
In the 1746 church of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, in the district of Alto Maranhão, there are four altars with beautiful images of saints and a beautiful soapstone fountain in the sacristy; the bell tower is next to it, separate from the body of the church (r. Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, s/n, Alto Maranhão).
The district can be reached via the BR-040 highway up to the Joaquim Murtinho interchange, towards São João del-Rei (with a signposted entrance), or via the dirt Estrada Real, whose precariousness is offset by the beauty of the landscape.
In the district of Lobo Leite is the church of Nossa Senhora da Soledade, from the second half of the 18th century, which has an interesting collection of baroque images (pça. Dr. Aluares Rodrigo Lobo leite, s/n).
The church is closed; information on visits can be obtained from the Congonhas Tourism Board. Lobo Leite can be reached via the BR-040 highway, towards Rio de Janeiro, at the Ouro Branco interchange; there are signs.
Every year, thousands of pilgrims flock to the basilica during the week of September 4-14 to worship the image of the Dead Lord, brought from Portugal in 1787.
Those who don’t share this religious fervor and wish to admire the baroque ensemble in peace should avoid this date.