Dr. Watson E. Mills says, “This column completes the series covering the New Seven Wonders of the World. People ask me: ‘which one is your favorite?’ I am hard-pressed to identify a single one because each underscores in its own unique way the important cultural and historic traditions that give meaning to our world. At the end of the day, I guess I would say: ‘see them all and then YOU decide’.”

Rio was hot and sweltering when I arrived to visit the Christ the Redeemer Statue, the last in the list of the New Seven Wonders of the World, but I was not about to let the heat and humidity deter me from making my way to the top of Corcovado Mountain so I could see the largest Art Deco statue in the world. 

I dropped my luggage at the hotel and took the metro a few stops to the spot where I was to board a cog-wheel train for the 20-minute ride to top of the mountain that is nearly 2,400 feet above the harbor below. The boarding line was long and the sun was still at work in the mid-afternoon sky. I learned that three trains plow these tracks and that together they can carry over 500 passengers per hour to the top of the mountain. I did a rough count of the passengers waiting and concluded that I would wait for about 40 minutes.

Finally, I settled into a seat and began drying myself off as the train pulled out for its 2.4 mile journey to the top. It crept along because the climb was steep. I read the brochure handed me at the ticket kiosk to discover that this train has transported many famous people, including Pope Pius XII, Albert Einstein, and Diana, Princess of Wales. I wondered if I were sitting in a seat previously occupied by some famous person!!! Most assuredly not, but still. . . .

When I exited the train I continued my upward trek on a series of escalators (installed in 2003) finally reaching the plaza that supports the massive statue. The plaza is small and much of it is taken up by the huge base of the mammoth statue. In fact, this base measuring 26 by 26 feet is large enough to contain a tiny chapel that was consecrated on the occasion of the statue’s 75th anniversary in 2006. The chapel is named for Brazil’s patron saint Our Lady of the Apparition, and it enables Catholics to celebrate weddings and baptisms underneath this cultural icon.

In the small space around the base, I found my neck to be in a dangerously awkward position as I tried to take in the enormity of the height of the statue. To facilitate viewing, on the far side, a set of steps lead down away from the statue to a wide overlook area providing not only the best upward view but also a panoramic sweep of the city and its harbors below.

So how did Christ the Redeemer come into being? In 1920 a group known as the Catholic Circle of Rio proposed that a statue of Christ be erected atop Corcovado Mountain. The group set about to collect signatures supporting the concept as well as donations. It has been suggested the idea caught on quickly because of what some perceived as the growing “Godlessness” and cultural secularism present in Brazilian society. The donations came mainly from Catholics who were vigorously behind the idea. Several design concepts were considered, including that of the Christian cross and a depiction of Jesus holding a globe in his hands, but the “opened-arms” idea was finally selected. It fell to local engineer Heitor da Silva Costa to design the statue. Almost immediately he enlisted the advice and assistance of several other experts.

Engineers studied the final sketches and settled on reinforced concrete as the best material out of which to construct the cross-shaped statue. This material was a new invention at the time and appeared to be one of the few materials strong enough to support the statue and its wide-wingspan.

Da Silva Costa believed that concrete was too rough for the fine contours of the exterior of the image, so he went to Paris to enlist the aid of world-class sculptors. It was Paul Landowski and Gheorghe Leonida, French sculptors, who eventually created the work. Landowski fashioned the statue in clay pieces, which were then shipped to Brazil and recast out of reinforced concrete.

In Paris, Da Silva Costa saw the fountains along the Champs Elysees. These structures were finished with tiny soapstone tiles that beautifully accentuated the curvatures on the exterior. It was exactly how he wanted his finished work to look. He updated the project plan to include a soapstone tile exterior. It is estimated that there are six million of these tiles covering the exterior.

Construction took nine years at a cost of US $250,000 (equivalent to $3.5 million in today’s dollars). The monument opened to the public on the night October 12, 1931. The plan was to illuminate a bank of floodlights by shortwave radio remotely from a station at the Vatican almost six thousand miles away. Bad weather, however, forced the lights to be turned on locally.

The statue stands 98 feet tall, excluding its pedestal. The outstretched arms measure 92 feet in width. The statue weighs 700 tons and sits majestically atop Corcovado Mountain at an altitude of 2,300 feet. The mountain is located in the Tijuca Forest National Park which overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro. 

Standing atop the mountain totally exposed to the sometimes harsh weather, the elements have degraded many of the soapstone tiles, resulting in the initiation of many restoration projects over the years. Christ the Redeemer has also been the subject of lightning strikes, but thankfully many do not result in serious damage due to the presence of numerous lightning rods. A few, however, have caused considerable damage. For example, the statue was struck during an electrical storm just days before the World Cup in 2014. During this strike, lightning singed the back of the head and destroyed the tip of a finger, but repairs were quickly made before Rio became the focus of the sports-loving fans around the world via television. 

When Da Silva Costa decided to cover the statue with soapstone tiles, he chose a very light colored strain. The quarry that supplied the material from which the tiles were made has long since run dry. In recent years the restoration artists have had difficulty duplicating the light gray color of the original titles. Once, some vandals, after climbing the statue apparently utilizing scaffolding put up during a renovation, spray painted graffiti across the head, arms, and chest. An angry Rio mayor decried the incident, calling it a crime against the nation. The vandals eventually surrendered to the police and the statue was repaired.

There are at least three ways to get to the base of the Christ the Redeemer statue. In addition to the cog-wheel train and a taxi, it is possible to hike there along a trail that runs through the Tijuca Forest National Park. Due to spiraling inflation and record unemployment, crime has spiked in Rio in the last several years. This steep 2.4 mile jungle trail has become a haven for muggers who routinely descend upon unsuspecting tourists who hike it. In fact, the trail was closed earlier this year after a robbery victim was stabbed. This tourist was just one of 58 reported robberies over a 10-day period. In light of such blatant attacks upon tourists, a question some thoughtful Brazilians pose as they gaze up at their silent savior with his hands of peace outstretched: “Does Christ have a tear in his eye seeing all the sadness as he looks out over a city in turmoil?” Happily, since the closing of the hiking trail, the 5,000 plus tourists per day to see the statue have been, in large measure, perfectly safe. I have traveled to the base of the statue twice in my life without incident. Should you plan to go, even if the hiking trail were to be reopened, my advice would be to enjoy a ride to the top on the cog-wheel train in perfect safety.

The genuine soul of Rio’s heart which can never be lost because of social and economic downturns can be seen clearly in this cultural icon. Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue stands as a beacon and symbol of hope and peace. With its outstretched arms, it expresses uniquely a sense of absolute reverence, openness and love. The statue is truly awe-inspiring. No matter where you may be in this sprawling city, when you look up towards the mountains, what you see is this giant figure standing ready to show a city and its people the Way.

Next time: “One Scary Place: Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania”