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Lisboa: A Figural Reading for a Crippled Church

Slaves were brought from Africa to work in mines soon after gold was discovered in the backlands of Brazil. The discovery of gold made inland settlements possible for the first time around the largest of these mines. In the 1700s, cities like Vila Rica became populous and lucrative sites, where Portuguese settlers lined streets with two-story houses and ornately adorned churches. The town’s gold provided the funding for decorating the more important of these structures by sculptures like those fashioned by Antônio Francisco Lisboa, a mulatto (1738-1814).[1]

He was later, somewhat affectionately, referred to as the “little cripple,” because his hands had been deformed by leprosy. Given the state of his hands, he could not hold onto his hammer and chisel, so he had his assistants tie them to what remained of his hands to continue his work. In this way he went, ornamenting church after church with expressive statues of biblical figures and saints. Though the names of his Portuguese father and African mother are known, during his lifetime he was known a bastard, but he was also known as one of the greatest exemplars of Baroque sculpture in Latin America and the world. This was the work of one servant of the Church.

Lisboa’s status as “servant” cut both ways. He was one who dedicated his gifts to the work of the gospel and was the son of Isabel, an African slave woman. Lisboa’s talents as a designer were tutored in his father’s workshops, but not by his father but by his uncle (stone carving he learned from the famous sculptor Francisco Xavier de Brito). His father disowned Isabel and trained Antônio under the guise of an adoptee. His father’s mercies were, of course, a fraud.

Today, some have found the documentary proof backing up what we know of Lisboa’s biography to be lacking, so for many his works are slowly being loosed from their numinous répertoire as Lisboa’s biography is being reframed as partly fictitious works of aficionados if not pious hagiographers — not dissimilar, perhaps, to stories like that of Pope Leo’s miraculous hand.[2]

It is said that the documentary and oral proof insufficiently demonstrate just when Lisboa’s leprosy took hold and when his work took to its heights. The impressiveness of his work relative to the time of his disease has consequently led skeptics to question if Lisboa had a disease at all or if it was not his assistants that created his later works in his name. Perhaps it is just that his work is too good for us to believe that his hands could have borne such fruit while enduring such disfigurement.

Furthermore, it is also true that neither Lisboa nor his works can be dislodged from their entanglement in the colonial and ecclesial interest that gave shape to his skill. Yet Lisboa’s works cannot be reduced to these incriminating influences, either to Portuguese colonizers or to the catechization of Jesuit missionaries, the latter of which brought the rococo style with them to Brazil. Lisboa gained from both, even if he was rejected as that empire’s bastard son. The sculptures and their imposing beauty remain with Lisboa.

Miraculously, nearer the end of his life, while suffering the full-effects of his illness, Lisboa created what is considered his greatest work: a dozen ten-foot-tall prophets that play sentry to Bom Jesus do Matosinhos’s parvise. The figures’ exaggerated limbs and expressions appear to guard the sanctuary of the church. All of this pays homage not only to Lisboa’s talents but also, if his biography is true, to his faith and perseverance.[3] After Lisboa’s death, his choice to fashion prophetic sentinels for the church seems fitting. Not only did these figures loom then over the colonial and extractive aegis, entradas and bandeiras, and episcopal aids who came  to worship there, they continue to loom over us.[4]

In the Global North, the fruit of the church is, like Lisboa, subject to scrutiny. Unlike Lisboa, though, this scrutiny is inlaid with oracles of divine judgment; but, like Jeroboam’s withered hand, the church can be restored to stretch out again before the altar of the Lord with newly chastened intent (1 Kgs. 13:4-6). If prophets are to remain stationed in the Anglican Communion in the minority world, holding fast to its remaining apostolic façades, they can do so only as they do not try to purify themselves and escape the judgment befalling its mixed legacy. In this way sentries remain.

Whatever glory this church might still bear witness to, it can only do so with hands like Lisboa’s. Though not leprous, its hands are disfigured by chronic partisan, sexual, colonial, and schismatic disease. Nevertheless, it must and can, with hands propped, chisel away, keeping scriptural forms at its fore. Even if we who “stay” as bastard sons and daughters, permitted to do so by the blasphemous multitude’s supposed mercy, the work must go on in hope and obedience to divine will — not in cynical regroupings — in anticipation of surprising beauty to come, like the beauty wrought from Lisboa’s preservation in the face of the mixed responses of onlookers. Indeed, this is how the Church is in every age: crippled but enduring.

By the age of 39, Lisboa was known as the leading practitioner of Brazil’s rococo style. Yet, his racial identity and origins prevented his admittance to any professional artists’ guild in his lifetime, even though during it he was understood to be equal with the likes of Italy’s Serpotta and Austria’s Fechtmeyer.[5] In the crippled hands of Lisboa, received Portuguese technique gave way to something new in Bahia, Pernambuco, Rio, and Pará: what is known as the Baroque Mineiro period. In short, from a mixed legacy reformation and sanctity came to Brazil, of which Lisboa was a great and enduring contributor.

With all the calls for a “new Benedict” since the 1980s following the publication of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, it is sometimes forgotten that Benedict’s Rule was just this: reformation. Benedict’s Rule was no novel synderesis, but rather a Mary-like treasuring of received gift, conscientia (Luke 2:19). Like Elijah standing amid warring Israel, or Benedict’s infighting brothers, staying meant holding out forgiveness and hoping for the renewal of divine presence.

Lisboa’s prophets stay today for Brazil, and serve as a reminder for us. Whatever hope remains for the Anglican Communion, it is given through Christ’s constant desire to forgive and, indeed, to reapply himself to the suffering his remaining prophets endured to serve the ends of that forgiveness (Job 5:18; Col. 1:24; Acts 16:29–34). Perhaps, when the time comes, the goodness that God brings will, like Lisboa’s, apply more skepticism to our illnesses rather than to our works.

The Rev. R. Trent Pettit serves as an associate priest at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale, Toronto. 


[1] John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 83.

[2] See, e.g., Walter Boechat’s Jungian analysis of Lisboa in “Cultural Complexes and Cultural Identity in Brazil: the Development of an Individual Identity,” in Research in Analytical Psychology: Applications from Scientific, Historical, and Cross-Cultural Research. Joseph Cambray and Leslie Sawn, eds. (London: Routledge, 2018): 252-54.

[3] James E. Hogan, “Antonio Francisco Lisboa, ‘O Aleijadinho’: An Annotated Bibliography,” Latin American Research Review 9, no. 2 (Summer, 1974), 84.

[4] Colonial expeditions into inland Brazil were economically motivated and took the form of two types: the entradas and the bandeiras. Entradas worked for the Portuguese crown and colonial government, while the bandeirantes worked for private investors.

[5] Pal Keleman, Baroque and Rococo in Latin America. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1967, p. 248, referenced in James E. Hogan, “Antonio Francisco Lisboa, ‘O Aleijadinho’: An Annotated Bibliography,” Latin American Research Review 9, no. 2 (Summer, 1974), 83.

2 COMMENTS

  1. If you hope to inspire the “blasphemous multitude” to share your vision of the faith, you might start by refraining from dismissive insults.

    • Dear Kirk, Thank you for reading. I’m sorry that you did not find the article edifying. I simply have to take it for granted that God’s provision of prophets presupposes that such a multitude exists. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares similarly points to the multitude’s unevenness. What I did not want us to take for granted was what I think we can see reflected in the figure of Lisboa: that the Lord continues to be at work amidst us, a divided lot. That gives me hope, one I hoped to share.

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