They had only recently put finishing touches on the statue when Mavis, my grandmother, made her first visit to the iconic Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil more than 70 years ago.
Mavis was a young Brit, living with her family in the Amazon, where her father was an engineer working on one of the first railroads being constructed in the jungles. It was on a side trip to Rio that Mavis would marvel at what is now the largest art deco statue in the world – Christ the Redeemer that stands majestically embracing the whole of the city from its grand perch on Corcovado Mountain.
She journeyed up this famed mountain by way of an electric railcar that jerked and jostled its way toward the summit, traveling through a lush rainforest along the way.
As she disembarked from the train, and climbed the many steps to the statue’s base, greeting her with open arms was Christ the Redeemer. And he was not like any depiction of Jesus Mavis had seen before.
To start, he was a bit on the tall side, standing some 130 feet high. Unlike most statues that looked upward and stretched their arms toward the heavens, this Christ looked down toward the city of Rio laid out like a sprawling blanket below him, holding his arms in such a way as if to suggest an embrace. While most were styled in emulation of the great art of centuries past, this statue was strikingly modern, bearing the hallmarks of Art Deco that Mavis knew signified the bold new world that was rapidly blossoming around her. This depiction of Christ was one that touched Mavis like none before and here he was, greeting her with outstretched arms.
I didn’t hear about my grandmother’s visit to this famous statue until I told her that I was being deployed to South America aboard the cruise ship, Pacific Princess. It dawned on me that I would have the opportunity to trace her footsteps to this world-renowned landmark so many decades after her visit. Our circumstances could hardly be more different. She was barely a teenager on her journey up the mountain, traveling with her family, including several younger siblings for whom she cared. I would have charges of my own, but not children. As a shore excursions manager for Princess Cruises at the time, I shepherded groups of passengers to attractions at countless cruise destinations.
When the time came to make my own journey up Corcovado Mountain, like Mavis, my Princess companions and I traveled by rail.. The day was sultry, and I was feeling fortunate for the wicking effect of my cotton T-shirt. Atop the mountain, I had read, I’d be at 2,400 feet, and a lot of what lay below was ocean. Surely I could expect to catch a cooling breeze.
If the images of the statue that pervade popular culture had prepared me for my encounter with this great monolith, nothing had prepared me for the view. The day was clear, and the city of Rio de Janeiro made a glorious display, stretched out in all directions with ocean beyond, spanning to infinity. My grandmother had described the place in great detail, including the chapel in the statue’s pedestal, which can hold more than 100 people. She and I had bonded over a shared love of cobalt blue glass, and she thrilled at the memories of cobalt tiles that lined the chapel.
I walked the perimeter of the statue, taking in the 360-degree view from all angles. Designed by sculptor Paul Landoviski, and engineered by Heitor da Silva, Christ the Redeemer was 10 years in the making, and completed in 1931. It’s been counted among the new Seven Wonders of the World; I was wondering myself how his creators managed to get all 635 tons of him situated here.
When I came through the chapel entrance, my heart leapt. Inside were the tiles. Blue. A familiar shade of cobalt. At that moment I felt my grandmother’s presence. Although she was miles away in my hometown of Reno, Nevada, I had never felt closer to her.
I found warmth in the statue’s embrace that cuts across religious lines. And for me, that warmth has an additional ounce of meaning. For that statue’s outstretched arms are an enduring remembrance of my grandmother’s embrace.