Inside the miracle room
The pervasive spirit of baroque in the arts of BrazilBy John Ryle • 30 November 2001 • Times Literary Supplement (“Mining the Galleries of Faith”) • Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Opulence and Devotion: Brazilian Baroque Art, catalogue by Caroline Whistler et al; British Museum, Unknown Amazon, catalogue by Colin McEwan et al; Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford Acts of Faith: Brazilian Contemporary Photography, catalogue edited by Astrid Brown; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Heroes and Artists: Popular Art & the Brazilian Imagination, catalogue edited by Tania Costa Tribe; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford Experiment / Experiência: Art in Brazil 1958-2000 • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 3,043 words
In the pilgrimage centres of the Brazilian Northeast—remote rural shrines that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors in the high season—are found what are locally known as “miracle rooms”, salas dos milagres. These rooms are filled with offerings from pilgrims seeking intercession or fulfilling vows. Their walls and ceilings are dense with passport photographs and framed mezzotint portraits of supplicants, or the relatives they seek to help. Alongside them are devout expressions of thanks for deliverance from death or lesser misfortune—laboriously handwritten notes and sheets torn from exercise books that flutter and curl against walls of mud and straw.
The portraits and letters in the miracle rooms are generally accompanied by sketches or painted representations of the events that brought the supplicants to these distant places: illness, road accidents, alcoholism, loss of love, landslides or lunacy. Mothers bring pictures of their ailing sons; wives of their husbands. The rooms are heaped with thank-offerings: discarded crutches and car number-plates in one corner, wooden carvings of heads and limbs in another. There are X-rays of life-threatening conditions pinned to the wall, as though in a hospital department of radiology. And suspended from the ceiling—dangling overhead in the manner of puppets, or charcuterie in a butcher’s shop—are hundreds of half-scale wax models of legs, arms, breasts, hearts and kidneys, afflicted body parts whose cure is credited to divine intervention.
Pinned alongside these wax models, layer on layer, are still more letters. They recount in further detail wondrous acts of healing or close encounters with death, and express gratitude to the local saint, or to manifestations of the Redeemer or the Blessed Virgin. Dust-laden rays of sunlight and the glow of votive candles contribute to the prevalent ambience of devotion. Outside the buildings, superannuated ex-votos—wax models and wood carvings of limbs and human organs—spill into the brightness of the air, like the resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day.
Galleries of faith
Photographs of these miracle rooms by Antonio Saggese, José Bassit and Christian Cravo, displayed at the Ashmolean in Oxford, reveal the poignancy in the lives of those who make pilgrimages to the shrines of the Brazilian Northeast—local, rural versions of Lourdes or the Wailing Wall. They reveal the splendour and the pathos of faith. At the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (in another of the half-dozen Brazilian exhibitions that are currently running in various cities in the UK) there is a further glimpse of this world of belief: a single, tastefully arranged row of painted wooden ex-votos (the devotional images that are also known as milagres).
The ex-votos at the Fitzwilliam are discards, most likely, of the miracle rooms of Pernambuco and Ceará, collected sometime in the 1960s for the then newly-established Museum of Northeastern Man in Recife. Detached from the realm where they originate, they are rearranged and displayed with an eye to their intrinsic sculptural qualities. They are a pleasure to behold. Yet a miracle room, it should be remembered, is more than this. It is a moral world, as well as an aesthetic one. Neither the photographs nor the detached objects can quite convey the intensity of a miracle room in situ, the feeling within, the way that love and faith and yearning can transform workaday objects, touching them with sublimity. These living assemblages of objects and texts demand to be understood as part of something greater, part of a living universe of belief and feeling.
In these salas dos milagres, generations of the faithful, with their vows, penances, prayers and mortifications, have inscribed affect onto every visible surface. The rooms are galleries of faith, museums of devotion; their acquisitions policy is the pent-up desire and cumulative longing of visitors. Ill-lit as they are, unarranged and crammed to the ceiling, these rooms are designed less for the public gaze than for the sight of God, like statues on the roof of a mediaeval cathedral.
Altars and oratories
The extremes of emotion and devotion expressed in these densely inscribed surfaces are baroque in their intensity. And the miracle rooms may be seen, in a broad sense, as examples of the enduring spirit of baroque in the Brazilian imagination. They are the demotic equivalent of the eighteenth-century churches which are the glory of formal religious architecture in Brazil. The upscale ritual furniture of these churches is the subject of a separate display at the Ashmolean. Here the same saints are venerated as in the salas dos milagres. In the grander ecclesiastical spaces spiritual intensity is achieved by decorative extravagance, by elaborate carvings and singing colours—above all, by the ubiquity of gold, largely from the mines of Minas Gerais, where diamonds and precious metal ores were discovered in the late seventeenth century.