5 Reasons Why We Care About Cristo Redentor

What makes the Christ the Redeemer statue so iconic?

Statue of Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janiero, Brazil
Statue of Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Photo by Andy Caulfield/The Image Bank Collection/Getty Images

The Christ the Redeemer statue is iconic. Sitting atop Corcovado mountain and overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, it is a statue known around the world. In 2007, the Christ the Redeemer statue was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World—beating out the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, which was only one of the 21 finalists. The Brazilian statue is not as old and it's smaller than Lady Liberty, yet its perceived presence is pervasive—Christ the Redeemer is omnipresent throughout this South American city even when Lady Liberty is quickly forgotten on the streets of New York City.

Cristo Redentor is the local name for Rio's statue of Jesus Christ, although English-speakers call it the Christ Redeemer statue or Christ, the Redeemer. More secular students of statuary simply call it the Corcovado statue or Christ of Corcovado. No matter the name, it is striking architectural design and construction.

Cristo Redentor stands only 125 feet tall (38 meters, including pedestal). The statue, including the small chapel within the pedestal, took five years to construct, being inaugurated on October 12, 1931, so it's not even a very old statue. So, why do we care about the Christ the Redeemer statue? There are at least five good reasons.

5 Reasons Christ the Redeemer is Architecturally Popular

  1. Proportion and Scale: Christ takes the form of man, designed with human proportions but of super-human or superman size. From afar, the statue is a cross in the sky. Close up, the statue's size overwhelms the human form. This duality of proportion is intriguing and humbling to the human soul. The ancients Greeks knew the power of proportion and scale in design. Leonardo da Vinci may have popularized the "sacred geometry" of the Vetruvian Man figure, with arms outstretched within circles and squares, but it was architect Marcus Vitruvius (81 BC – 15 AD) who noticed and documented the proportions of the human form—way back before the birth of Jesus Christ. The symbolism attached to the Christian Latin cross is profound, yet its simple design can be traced back to ancient Greece.
  1. Aesthetics: The statue evokes beauty in both design and materials. The outstretched arms create the holy figure of the Latin cross—a balanced proportion that not only pleases the human eye but also invokes strong emotion as Christian iconography. The construction materials used to make the Christ the Redeemer statue are light-colored, readily reflecting light from the sun, the moon, and surrounding spotlights. Even if you couldn't see the sculptural details, the image of a white cross is always there. The statue is a modernist style called art deco yet it is as approachable and inviting as any Renaissance religious figure.
  1. Engineering and Preservation: Building a large but delicate-looking structure at the top of a very steep mountain was an accomplishment similar to engineering the historic skyscrapers being built in Chicago and New York City during the same time period. Actual onsite construction didn't begin until 1926, with the building of the pedestal and chapel. Scaffolding was erected on top of that in the form of the outstretched figure. Workers transported by rail up the mountain to assemble the steel mesh that would reinforce the concrete.  The magnitude of any large structure gives architecture a "wow" factor. For the Christ the Redeemer statue, each hand is 10 1/2 feet long. Thousands of triangular tiles of soapstone are inlaid into the steel-reinforced concrete. Cristo Redentor has braved the elements, including several lightening strikes, since it was completed in 1931. Designers planned for continued maintenance by creating internal areas with access doors to various parts of the statue. Professional cleaning companies such as Karcher North America have been seen straddling a hand while cleaning the tiles.
  2. Symbolism: Architectural statuary is often symbolic, like the figures within the pediment of the New York Stock Exchange or the western pediment of the US Supreme Court building. Statues are often used as an expression of belief or what is valued by a corporation or group of people. Statues have also been used to symbolize a person's life and work, such as the Lei Yixin-designed Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC. Sculpture can have multiple meanings, as it does with Christ the Redeemer—the sign of the cross is forever present on a mountaintop, the remembrance of a crucifixion, the reflection of God's light, the strong, loving, and forgiving human face of God, and the blessing of a community by an ever present deity. For Christians, the statue of Jesus Christ may be more than a symbol. The Christ the Redeemer statue announces to the world that Rio de Janeiro is a Christian city.
  1. Architecture as Protection: If architecture includes everything in the built environment, we look at the purpose of this statue as we would any other structure. Why is it here? Like other buildings, the placement on the site (its location) is an important aspect. The statue of Christ the Redeemer has become a symbolic protector of people. Like Jesus Christ, the statue protects the urban environment, like a roof over your head. Cristo Redentor is as important as any shelter. Christ the Redeemer provides protection for the soul.

Collaborative Architecture

The Christ the Redeemer statue was designed by Brazilian engineer and architect Heitor da Silva Costa. Born in Rio de Janeiro on July 25, 1873, da Silva Costa had sketched a figure of Christ in 1922 when the foundation was laid. He won the statue design competition, but the open-arm design may have been the idea of artist Carlos Oswald (1882-1971), who helped da Silva Costa with the final sketches.

Another influence on the design was from French sculptor Paul Landowski (1875-1961). In his studio in France, Landowski made scale models of the design and separately sculpted the head and hands.  Because this structure would be open to the elements of wind and rain, additional construction guidance was given by the French engineer Albert Caquot (1881-1976).

It is stunning how many people it takes to bring a building idea to reality. When we realize all of the people involved in a project such as this, we may pause and reflect that collaboration may be the real reason that the Christ the Redeemer statue is so popular. Nobody can do it alone. This is architecture for our spirit and soul.

Sources: Christ the Redeemer at www.paul-landowski.com/en/christ-the-redeemer; Christ the Redeemer by Lorraine Murray, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., Last Updated January 13, 2014 [accessed June 11, 2014]; New 7 Wonders of the World at world.new7wonders.com; "Arms Wide Open," BBC News, March 10, 2014 [accessed February 1, 2017]