Aleijadinho (c. 1738–1814)

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Aleijadinho (c. 1738–1814)

Aleijadinho (Antônio Francisco Lisbôa; b. ca. 1738; d. 18 November 1814), Brazilian architect and sculptor. Born in the provincial capital of Villa Rica do Ouro Prêto, Aleijadinho was a product of colonial Brazil, where the baroque and rococo art and architecture of Minas Gerais was a vehicle of nativist expression; here Saint Michael the Archangel appeared in a profusion of feathers, and a dark-skinned Virgin Mary was portrayed as a mestizo. Contributing to this nativism was Antônio Francisco Lisbôa, known as Aleijadinho (the Little Cripple), whose prolific and distinctive work as an architect, sculptor, and decorator of Mineiro churches is emblematic of the era.

Aleijadinho was the son of Manuel Francisco Lisbôa and a slave named Isabel; he had two full siblings. The year Aleijadinho was born, his father married another woman, by whom he had four legitimate children. Although his father recognized Antônio Francisco as his son, gave him his name, and brought him into his profession of builder and artisan, little documentation illuminates their relationship. His father may have learned his craft from family members in Portugal, because his brother, Ant-ônio Francisco Pombal, was also an architect who built Mineiro churches; on their mother's side they were presumably related to the celebrated Portuguese architect João Antunes. In addition to working under his father's direction, Aleijadinho was taught design by the painter João Gomes Baptista.

Aleijadinho executed his first pieces in wood and stone at age fourteen and worked steadily at his craft until close to his death in Ouro Prêto at the age of seventy-six. He made effective use of Brazil's native soapstone, which is relatively easy to carve when freshly cut. He often worked in conjunction with the painters Francisco Xavier Carneiro and Manoel da Costa Ataíde.

The church was the center of Mineiro social life and Aleijadinho's main patron. Eighteenth-century Portuguese church architecture was influenced by that of Bavaria and Austria, in part due to the cultural interchange resulting from the marriages of King João V (reigned 1707–1750) and the Marquês of Pombal to Austrian princesses. The Austrian-Bavarian influence is apparent in the churches of Minas, particularly those designed and decorated by Aleijadinho. Although Aleijadinho never left Brazil, printed engravings gave him a familiarity with European forms.

While Aleijadinho's body of work is immense, and he is known to have contributed to many projects as a subcontractor, his documented work is concentrated in Ouro Prêto, Sabará, São João del Rei, and Congonhos do Campo. His most important works are the churches of São Francisco in Ouro Prêto and São João de Rei, Nossa Senhora do Carmo in Sabará, and Bom Jesus de Matosinhos in Congonhos. This last church is a pilgrimage site graced by Aleijadinho's magnum opus, sixty-six wooden life-size figures that comprise an incomplete set of the stations of the cross (1796–1799) and twelve remarkable soapstone statues of the Old Testament prophets (1800–1805), arranged in a dramatic, ballet-like way on the entry terrace.

Much of this work was done under the handicap of a debilitating and painful disease that has been variously described as leprosy, syphilis, or a viral influenza contracted in 1777. It caused scarring, crippling, progressive loss of movement, and disfigurement, and gained for him the name by which he is best known, O Aleijadinho—little cripple. He lost his toes, his hands atrophied and shriveled, and he had to be carried to his work sites, where curtains shielded him from casual viewers. He executed the Congonhos prophets with chisel and mallet strapped to the stumps of his gnarled hands.

Details of Aleijadinho's life are provided by his mid-nineteenth-century biographer, Rodrigo José Ferreira Brêtas, who obtained information from Aleijadinho's daughter-in-law, Joana Francisca Lopes, in whose home the artist spent his last days. Among the known facts of Aleijadinho's personal life is that he had a son with a slave named Ana; Manuel Francisco Lisbôa was born circa 1775 and followed his father's profession.

More than a dozen Mineiro towns and Rio de Janeiro claim to possess statues, retables, pulpits, altars, doorways, windows, fountains, and buildings attributed to Aleijadinho. Some of the many items ascribed to him may have been done by his assistants and students. His most distinctive works are undoubtedly his sculptures, which Aleijadinho infused with his own suffering. Art historian Pál Kelemen wrote, "Aleijadinho carried Brazilian Rococo to its fullest flowering…. A rare human story lives in his masterpieces; his gift was genius."

See alsoArchitecture: Architecture to 1900 .


No modern definitive biography of Aleijadinho exists. Researchers should begin with Rodrigo José Ferreira Brêtas, Antônio Francisco Lisbôa—O Aleijadinho, in Revista do Arquivo Público Mineiro, vol. 1 (1896): 163-174. The premier work by a great authority on Baroque art is Germain Bazin, Aleijadinho et la sculpture baroque au Brésil (1963). For the Latin American context see Pál Kelemen, Baroque and Rococo in Latin America (1967). A brief study that tackles some of the questions of authenticity of attributed works and has an abbreviated version of Brêtas is Sylvio De Vasconcellos, Vida e obra de Antônio Francisco Lisbôa, O Aleijadinho (1979). In a similar vein are Delson Gonçalves Ferreira, O Aleijadinho (1981); Fernando Jorge, O Aleijadinho: sua vida, sua obra, seu génio, 6th rev. ed. (1984); and Myriam A. Ribeiro De Oliveira, Aleijadinho: Passos e Profetas (1985). For an excellent photo essay on his magnum opus, see Hans Mann and Graciela Mann, The Twelve Prophets of Aleijadinho (1967). For Aleijadinho's place in Mineiro culture see the classic by Alceu Amoroso Lima, Voz de Minas, 2d rev. ed. (1946). Those seeking fuller listings of sources should consult the fine bibliographies by James E. Hogan (Librarian, College of the Holy Cross), "Antônio Francisco Lisbôa: 'O Aleijadinho': An Annotated Bibliography," in Latin American Research Review 9, no. 2 (1974): 83-94; and "The Contemporaries of Antônio Francisco Lisbôa: An Annotated Bibliography," in ibid., 138-45.

Additional Bibliography

Ferreira, Delson Goncalves. O Aleijadinho. Belo Horizonte: Rona Editora, 2001.

Jardim, Marcio. O Aleijadinho: uma sintese histórica. Belo Horizonte: Stellarum, 1995.

Straumann, Patrick, and Ferrante Ferranti. L'Aleijadinho: Le lépreux constructeur de cathédrales. Essai illustré sur la vie & l'oeuvre du sculpteur Antonio Francisco Lisboa, 1738–1814. Paris: Chandeigne, 2005.

                                 Frank D. McCann Jr.

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Aleijadinho (c. 1738–1814)

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