Cristo Redentor: Christ for the Public | A Personal Reflection

Christ the Redeemer 2

Overlooking the sprawling city of Rio de Janeiro in south-eastern Brazil stands the well-recognised statue of Jesus Christ, known as Christ the Redeemer, (Cristo Redentor in Portuguese). It is the largest art deco monument in the world. This image of Jesus has become a recognisable icon of Rio and Brazil. It is a Christological image that is literally visible and pervasive to life in the Brazilian city. The statue holds a centrality in the city, not just physically but even in the psyche of the people who see it as a cultural icon. It would be interesting to study what significance the image of Jesus portrayed through the Christ the Redeemer has for Rio. Who is Jesus as depicted in this informal Christological expression? What kind of meaning does the face of Jesus evoke on the Brazilians? This essay recognises the popular appeal of the Christ image and seeks to identify its Christological significance.

Context – A public effort

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The initial suggestion to build the statue was proposed as early as 1850’s by Venetian priest, Pedro Maria Boss to honour the royal family. However, actual work began only in 1922 with the initiative of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Rio.[1] It seems to have been accelerated by the fear that after World War I, Brazil would slide into despair and godlessness. Much thought and participation went into deciding the location, design, material and the actual process of construction. The summit of Mount Corcovada (704 metres above sea level) was finally chosen as the location. The foundation stone was laid on April 4, 1922 commemorating the centennial of Brazil’s independence from Portugal. The original design of the face was by French sculptor, Paul Landowski.[2] The project towards this staggering monument was a community effort involving people from across a wide range of professions. From among other designs, “Jesus with his arms wide open” was voted by the public to be the best representation for the city.[3] Finally completed in 1931, it stands 30 metres tall with its horizontally outstretched arms spanning 28 metres. The statue is made of reinforced concrete clad in an assembled mosaic of thousands of triangular white soapstone tiles, chosen for its elegance and resistance to weather and cracking.[4]

Content – Christ of the public

Perhaps the first thing that one notices about Christ the Redeemer is its sheer size due to which it is visible from any point in the city. Designed with the hope to turn the tide of secularism and godlessness, it is a constant and visible reminder that Rio de Janeiro is a “Christian city”.[5] Jesus is depicted with his arms wide open in a friendly and accepting posture. The calm, gentle demeanour in the face of Jesus makes him appear warm and compassionate. His face is slightly lowered with his gaze directed towards the city. From the perspective of the city people looking up at the statue, Jesus is always watching over them. His gentle arms are constantly open in protective embrace.

From a distance when the details fade out, the statue takes the form of a cross, bringing to mind the crucifixion and with it the reflection of God’s love and His appearance in human form to forgive and bless. As a beacon catching the first morning light and the last evening sun, it is an ever-present image of hope and comfort for the people of Rio. The meaning of the statue is seen not only in a religious sense. It has been understood as a symbol of hospitality, embrace and welcome to visitors of the city. It is also a symbol of hope for the poor scattered in the favelas (slums).


It is interesting to note that the statue is not a monument belonging to a particular religious institution. Christ the Redeemer depicts a Christ that is not owned or restricted to the church but belongs freely and publicly to the people. An incident of vandalism by graffiti artists on the statue was called a “crime against the nation” by the then mayor of Rio.[6] Symbolically, I recognise Christ depicted in the statue as supporting the interests of the people and not just invested in strictly spiritual concerns. Christ dons the colours of the Brazilian flag in support of the national football team during the World Cup 2014. Following the Paris attacks in November 2015, it was illuminated in the colours of the flag of France. Works of preservation following wear from exposure to weather and lightning strikes have been undertaken by the government as a matter of national concern.

One also notices that the statue is straightforward and has minimal details. In comparison, a monument such as the Statue of Liberty is intricately designed with details of the movement of fabric, flame of the torch, chains at the bottom and words (numbers) on the book held by Lady Liberty. Each of these details convey meaning and significance. On the other hand, Jesus is portrayed in a minimalistic way in Christ the Redeemer with a calm face, with eyes gazing over the city and arms outstretched. The cloak that occupies the largest portion of the statue is plain white with little pattern. Except for an outline of the heart and a crown (that also doubles as lightning conductor) there isn’t many other details. This minimalistic Christ without much religious overtones appears to best serve the interest of the public by being open to interpretation. Because it has no particularities, it can be used even for a wide range of national interests. It resembles to me the versions of Christologies that are reluctant to emphasise historical particularities of Jesus and instead prefer to uphold an universal and ideal Christ. This might be the reason for the varying opinions on its significance. One distinct detail that Christ the Redeemer does convey clearly through its shape is the cross. Christ is seen to embody compassion, acceptance and inclusion, inviting a hug – perhaps the simplest theological motif. Perhaps its simple message that anyone can understand is precisely its greatest strength. In addition, the cross is always a profound symbol – both religiously and even aesthetically – that provokes deeper reflection on the spectator.[7]

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Comment – Christ for the public

What does Christ mean for the public? It is fascinating that Brazilians chose a depiction of Jesus to commemorate their independence from colonial rule. Does Jesus represent a symbol of liberation that best captures the story of the nation? Elsewhere in other former colonies such as much of Africa, China etc., Jesus Christ is often associated with colonialism. However, in Christian dominated places like Brazil – as is in regions like the Naga hills in northeast India – Jesus is not seen as a foreign entity but a liberator, often understood with political overtones. In the case of Christ the Redeemer, the portrayal of Jesus is strangely European. It appears that just as Christ is depicted without any indication of his historical particularities, there is minimal contextualisation in the portrayal too. It rises white, abstract and almost stoic against the tropical green and bustling cityscape. Though European in design, due to the prevalence of Catholic art (statues, architecture, etc) Brazilians seem to find a certain resonance and familiarity towards Christ the Redeemer. Christ is represented as “foreign” and removed from the ground. Doesn’t this distance the people from Christ and hinder them from feeling a deeper sense of kinship and identification towards Him?

It is also possible that this might be another form of display of institutional power and authority by Christians in a predominantly Catholic country. The statue is often cited as a symbol against secularisation, even if that might not have been the original intention when it was first made. I do have concern that triumphalism and imposition of religious expressions on the public life of an increasingly cosmopolitan and global city might be unhelpful. Such displays of power seem to uphold the current religious institutions as ultimate. Objectively speaking, the portrayal of Jesus as public, visible and open to all is accurate to be sure. However, such ultimacy belongs only to Jesus upon His return – which will truly then be public, powerful, and triumphalistic. Until then, Christ the Redeemer must stand as a symbol of the acceptance of Jesus to all and His free welcome to aliens and sojourners. He belongs freely to all people, and is not bound within the walls of institutional church – whether Catholic or Protestant. His is a face that anybody can look to. His arms wide open and the cross is full of grace, hope and liberation for those who despair. Christ our Redeemer was publicly crucified on the cross on a hill. Despite His great suffering, Christ does not despair. He is peaceful, prayerful and humble as portrayed in the statue. This gives strength to those who identify with Jesus’ suffering. Jesus is seen as melancholic, compassionate, silently sees and knows all and stands in solidarity with the voiceless. As the Redeemer, Christ is an inspiration for those who do not have much to hope for in their poverty or oppression. In portraying these expressions, Christ the Redeemer plays an excellent role.

There seems to be a common perception that Christ the Redeemer is significant mostly for tourism and not much else. Some have noted that at best, it is a symbol of hope for those in despair and poverty. Personally, I imagine that encountering the massive statue and looking at the beautiful face of Jesus would evoke a deep sense of reverence and reflection, just as was the case when I beheld the gigantic Buddha statues in Kathmandu, Nepal. Similarly, I think profound questions such as “Who is this person? What did he teach as the spiritual meaning of life? etc.” would surface upon visiting the Christ the Redeemer. In other words, it may serve only as a site for tourism in most cases, as a public monument, it offers an opportunity in which tourists/visitors are confronted with the important question, “Who is this man?” I would be curious to know what kind of answers are being offered at the foot of the statue for visitors. I could not get any more information on this except that there is a chapel that celebrates mass regularly.[8]

Negatively, the portrayal of Jesus as voiceless and silent seems to offer no critique to perpetrators of oppression and corruption. It is no secret that despite the watching eyes of the Redeemer, abject poverty, economic disparity and immoral lifestyles have become a part of urban experience in Rio.[9] To highlight an incident that is alluded to previously, during the World Cup 2014, instead of critiquing the corrupted Brazilian authorities for their mishandling of money in the preparations leading up to the tournament, Christ the Redeemer was illuminated in Brazilian colours – no doubt in accordance to public interest. But Christ seemed oblivious or dismissive of the protests and those suffering. Who will don the flags of the poor and oppressed? Though appearing to be “public”, Christ seems inaccessible in reality to the interests of the common people. To see their symbol of hope being used only for the cause of those who are seen as oppressors might further lead victims into deeper despair and fatalism. A Christ that is truly for the people must have power and voice to speak against oppression and injustice.

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Photo: Cristo Redentor caught in the last sunlight. View from the favella of Rio.


The statue Christ the Redeemer has come to be seen as a national icon of Brazil.[10] It is remarkable in my opinion that a post-colonial state sees as a national symbol, a statue of Jesus (usually perceived as a colonial import) that is stylistically European in a city that is otherwise notorious for poverty, corruption and godless lifestyle.[11] A symbol stands for an idea. Christ the Redeemer stands as a symbolic presence of Christ’s protection, compassion and embrace over the city and for its people. As the city and nation identify Christ the Redeemer as its icon, may His redeeming justice, truth and love bring public and holistic transformation to the people and the land!



[This paper was presented at the seminar class, Faces of Christ–Majority World Christologies as a reflection on “informal Christologies” | October 2018, Regent College.]

[1] Britannica. “Christ the Redeemer.” (accessed November 21 2018).

[2] Lindsay Boatwright, “Christ the Redeemer,” Elon International Studies, Brazil. (accessed November 20, 2018).

[3] Boatwright. Ibid.

[4] Britannica. (accessed November 21 2018).

[5] ThoughtCo. “5 Reasons Why Christ the Redeemer is so Popular,” (accessed November 22, 2018).

[6] Stuart Grudgings and Doina Chiacu “Vandals cover Rio’s Christ statue with graffiti.” (Accessed November 20, 2018).

[7] “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.” ThoughtCo. “5 Reasons Why Christ the Redeemer is so Popular,” (accessed November 22, 2018).

[8] “In 2006, to mark the statue’s 75th anniversary, a chapel at its base was consecrated to Our Lady of Aparecida, the patron saint of Brazil.” Britannica. “Christ the Redeemer,” (accessed November 20, 2018).

[9] For poverty as an issue in Rio, see Rio is well known for their carnivals which is often marked by lavish and extravagant celebrations, often involving sensuality, decadence and scandals. (accessed November 21, 2018).

[10] Google Image Search for “National Icon of Brazil” always results in multiple images including Christ the Redeemer.

[11] The experiences of life in the city is brought in focus in the film, “City of God.” Movie Review, For a Christian prayer report on the city, see (accessed November 21, 2018).

Images used in the post are not mine. Featured GIF image:


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