Sacred Art

Catholic Saints and Candomblé Gods in Modern Brazil

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Henry Glassie, Pravina Shukla
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , November
     540 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sacred Art presents the work and lives of artists who sculpt and paint or print images of Catholic saints and Candomblé orixás in Bahia and Pernambuco, two northeastern states in Brazil. Its hundreds of color photographs show the artists at work, their studios and assistants, the cities they live in, related religious processions/rituals, and, above all, their works. The authors’ disciplinary location is folklore studies and their focus is folk art.

The artists’ works are the visual focus of the book. The many photographs, on almost every page, reveal a glorious variety of subjects, media, and styles and offer an excellent introduction to Brazilian popular religious art. Sacred Art reads like the vast extended catalog of a grand exhibition by these selected artists. The book begins with an in-depth study of sculptor Edival Rosas and his wife, Izaura, who paints his statues. As with many of the artists featured, their work is valued by international collectors. Edival’s life-long study of the traditional styles of Brazilian arte sacra allows him both to hybridize and to work within historical styles: he was commissioned to restore two seventeenth-century evangelists and to produce two original statues in the same style for Salvador’s church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia. The choice to begin with this studious and accomplished artist grounds the authors’ elision of the folk/fine art distinction (74–75).

The authors necessarily narrow their focus, choosing two states in one region of Brazil. They found their subjects by following leads from one city to another. Given the great regional variation in all things cultural within Brazil, further elaboration of how Bahia and Pernambuco “serve as generally representative” would have been useful (2). (See for a selective overview of Brazilian “artesans.”) There is no discussion of how the sample of artists within these states is representative. Of those not appearing in the book, the most well known is Zé do Carmo, whose famous Anjo do Sertão (backwoods/dry country angel) was commissioned in 1980 for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Brazil, only to be rejected by the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife as too profane (a group of younger artists has taken up Zé do Carmo’s work as their model— This unavoidable selectivity does not detract from the book, but the methodological questions are not addressed.

The artists’ words are the focus of the text. We read of their lives and apprenticeships, their views on techniques, styles, process, materials, and markets, and their thoughts on the saints and orixás that figure in their work. The latter theme is central from the perspective of the study of religion/s. More than three dozen artists’ voices evoke a popular theology through a mosaic of references to “positive” or “universal spiritual energy,” to “spiritual,” “life,” or “creative force,” and to “sacred power”; the authors sum this up with the phrase “essences of power and beauty” (454, 344, 353, 440, 461, 97, 405, 455, 459, see 67, 257, 340, 375, 441, 461, 470–475). Interviews were transcribed in the original Portuguese by Shukla—a native Brazilian—before translation. This helps present the artists’ words in a way that both rings authentic—syntax, rhythm, and vocabulary are resonant with class and regional location—and that also offers a useful contrast with the authors’ own limpid, reflexive, and often personal prose.

Throughout the book, Glassie and Shukla intersperse comparisons, evocations of cultural context, descriptions of local geography, accounts of saints and orixás, nods to related scholarship, and pointers to relevant academic themes. Twenty pages of notes are organized by page—no in-text notes, footnotes, or endnotes interrupt the flow of text—and an eighteen-page bibliography, primarily in English and Portuguese, points to scholarship in several disciplines. Comparisons to relations between religion and art in other parts of the world where the authors have done fieldwork bring in valuable context, including Yoruba traditions in Nigeria in relation to Candomblé (90, 289), and artists’ search for “power and beauty” in Bangladesh and Turkey (460–70). Placing these Brazilian artists’ voices front and center preserves the polyphony of their views on art and religion without superimposing a normalizing frame. The flip side of this focus is that the authors’ interpolated comments come across as a series of marginalia, isolated brush strokes that do not add up to a coherent picture. The accumulation of asides is evocative, but interpretations are offered with little or no argument or elaboration. Broad claims are set out for readers to take or leave: for example, a “meeting and merging [of cultures]...produced the iconically frontal, neomedieval forms of popular religious art in the Iberian colonial world...[and this] is also found in the painted icons of the Eastern Church and in the sculpture of Hinduism and Buddhism” (299). Moments of analytic purchase are glossed over quickly: for example, the actual facts of causal influences within a tradition are of little importance, because “what matters is the process of thought” (97, see 195, 211, 457). Here readers might expect more on the concept of “tradition,” given that Glassie is the author of a classic article on that topic (Journal of American Folklore, 1995). Religious issues are noted without the depth of description or contextualization that scholars of religion might expect: accounts and photographs of processions are presented with minimal historical or ethnographic background; there is no mention of other Afro-Brazilian religions beyond Candomblé; and issues of class, race, and sexuality are not prominent, though there is some focus on gender. My wish for more explicit discussion of religious and social themes reflects my disciplinary location, and I honor the authors’ choice to write the book as they did. Their book “focuses clearly on its subject in context, inevitably pulling in random and productively disruptive facts, while intentionally excluding other things” (1). All caveats aside, the sustained presence of these artists’ voices and the abundant images of their work make this an exceptional contribution to scholarship on art and religion, and an essential work on popular religion in Brazil.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Engler is professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada and professor colaborador at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo.

Date of Review: 
December 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Henry Glassie is college professor emeritus at Indiana University and has received many awards for his work. Three of his eighteen books—Passing the Time in Ballymenone, The Spirit of Folk Art, and Turkish Traditional Art Today—were named among the notable books of the year by the New York Times.

Pravina Shukla is professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at Indiana University and is the author of Costume: Performing Identities through Dress and the award-winning book The Grace of Four Moons. She is also the coauthor of The Individual and Tradition.


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