Saturday, September 26, 2009

Overcoming Adversity - An Inspiration

During my travels near and far, I have experienced many religious sights, rituals as well as events. These places and events have intrigued me greatly. I have been impressed with the faith, devotion, and myriad efforts by man to spiritually elevate himself.

At times, like many other people, I have remarked as well as lamented about how much suffering and pain has been inflicted upon people in the name of religions. It is true but it is not the only thing that religions have provided people. Religions have provided people with a sense of meaning as well as direction to their life. Religious beliefs have inspired men and women to heroic levels of compassion, charity, and sacrifice for the benefit of fellow mankind. Religious beliefs have also motivated people to overcome adversities and inspired magnificent works of art in the celebration of one's faith.

One such example, that you most likely are unaware of is "The Little Cripple" Aleijadinho.

Antonio Francisco Lisboa, the mullato son of a Portuguese carpenter turned "architect" and his African slave, was born in 1738. Approximately 4,000,000 Africans had been imported to Brasil to support the cultivation of sugar cane and mining of precious minerals. Antonio's home town at the time was known as "Vila Rica" (Rich Town) in the Brasilian State of Minas Gerais for the wealth created from mining the gold deposits in the surrounding countryside. Today the city is known as "Ouro Preto" -"Black Gold".

It is believed that the young Antonio learned about architecture from his father and stone carving from the Brasilian sculptor Francisco Xavier de Bito. Even today the region around Ouro Preto is famous for soapstone carving though today the items are much more mundane and utilitarian - pizza stones, and cookware rather than baroque style sculptures of the 1700 and 1800's.

By the time he was a young man, he had developed a unique sculpture and painting style. His sculpture style was defined by strong expressive carving while his painting style utilized great contrasts and bold colors. He designed and constructed the Chapel of the Third Order of St Francis in Ouro Preto.

When he was young man, Antonio suffered the debilitating effects of a very serious disease thought to be either leprosy or syphilis. The disease progressed over time to the point where Antonio lost his fingers, toes, much skin, and eventually became blind. He became known as "O Aleijadinho" (The Little Cripple)

As his physical condition deteriorated, Aleijadinho became more reclusive. He worked at night to avoid being ogled by the local people. Legend has it that he was carried from his home to his workplace in a covered chair carried on the shoulders of four men. He suffered so greatly from his affliction that he is said to have removed some of his mangled useless fingers with a chisel that he was using to carve stone.

Aleijadinho's greatest body of work is at the Santuario de Bom Jesus de Matosinhos in Congonhas do Campo in Minas Gerais. In 1757 a local wealthy man had construction start on a grand church in thanks as well as commemoration of his recovery from a serious disease. Today the church remains a pilgrimage site. I visited the church during pilgrimage season. The event was another awe inspiring experience of faith and devotion emanating from the past and continuing on into the present day.

From 1800 to 1805, Aleijadinho carved the "12 Prophets" that stand on the terraced courtyard in front of the church. He carved with chisels and tools tied to the stumps at the end of his wrists. These statues are considered to be his masterpieces. Since he did not have feet any more, pads were strapped to his knees to assist him in climbing the ladders to be able to sculpt the 10 foot high statues.

Below the prophets are six chapels each containing scenes with life sized carved cedar Passion figures carved by Aleijadinho and his students.

Our visit to this was memorable - the sanctity of the church, the devotion of the pilgrims, the oppressive September heat of Minas Gerais, and most of the masterpieces born of the pain, suffering and genius of Aleijadinho.

To be honest there are some people who doubt the existence of Aleijadinho and consider him to be only a legend. Some research and books have been written laying out this possibility. Like almost all things religious and sometimes political a certain amount of faith is required. I believe. I believe that there was an Aleijadinho - "The Little Cripple" celebrated as Brasil's first great artist.

Allen's World is a better place with people like Aleijadinho having been in it and with his masterpieces remaining as part of it.

Additional photographs of this special place in Brasil can be viewed at:

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