- Sacred Art: Catholic Saints and Candomblé Gods in Modern Brazil by Henry Glassie, Pravina Shukla
Henry Glassie and Pravina Shukla’s book is the highly descriptive and richly photographed culmination of a decade of ethnographic research conducted between 2007–2016 in the states of Bahia and Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil. The authors’ principal emphasis is on the artists and master craftspeople, whose creation of religious art represents the spiritual character and religious identity of northeastern Brazil. The book examines the practices and sacred aesthetics of European Catholicism and West African religious traditions brought during the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave trade. Candomblé art and belief demonstrate a fusing of Catholic saints with the deities of West and Central Africa (Fon, Bantu, and Yoruba), resulting in a syncretic belief system similar to Santería in the Caribbean and Vodú in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and parts of the Southern United States.
Having worked in Bangladesh, Turkey, India, Ireland, and various other countries, the authors bring their substantial knowledge concerning traditional craft and regional art to Brazilian religious art. The decision to highlight this sacred form of craftsmanship came about after Glassie and Shukla realized that they had collected an immense amount of information on both the sacred and secular art of northeastern Brazil; consequently, they had to “split” the results, leaving the non-sacred (quotidian) art for later publications. Glassie and Shukla’s work privileges their participants’ words. They offer [End Page 111] descriptive observations and commentary, but only enough to complement the narrative. The interviews were recorded in Portuguese and translated by Shukla, who speaks the language fluently. The chapters are divided (loosely) into two sections. First, the reader is introduced to the Santeros, those who create, in various mediums, the Catholic art of saints and the Holy Family. The second half of the book looks closely at the art of Candomblé and the artists who portray the Orixás (Candomblé deities) in their craft. Many of the artists work comfortably within each faith, recognizing that both belief systems are indicative of a resilient and complex part of their cultural heritage.
In chapter 1, Glassie and Shukla take the reader through the streets of Salvador da Bahia on the Holy Feast Day of St. Francisco. From the ornate Portuguese-inspired Church of St. Francis to the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary—originally constructed for a Catholic lay order of African descent—the reader is introduced to the religious ritual and pageantry indicative of the Indigenous Catholicism. The authors note that here, half the saints, as well as the Stations of the Cross, are of Black heritage. The flavor of the feast day at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary—where drumming and dancing display Afro-Brazilian influences on the religious practices and artwork of European Catholicism—has a distinct Candomblé flavor indicative of the devotees’ cultural heritage. This descriptive account paves the way for subsequent chapters by detailing the similarities and differences between two religious traditions: one distinctly European and the other African.
In chapter 2, Glassie and Shukla introduce the reader to Edival and Izaura Rosas at their home and workshop outside of Salvador. Having taught himself the craft of woodworking, master carver and teacher Edival brings to life the sacred beauty of the Catholic saints through his intuitive knowledge of where “accuracy is tempered with idealism to capture otherworldly beauty” (p. 47). Izaura, in turn, paints the creations in vivid detail—something she initiated early on to help Edival concentrate more on his woodworking. In her work, Izaura treats each carving as she would a child, relishing the beauty that she brings to each statue. Over time, she has become a master at her art in her own right, complementing Edival’s work with her eye for color and detail. Edival and Izaura’s polychrome wooden statues have become their bread and butter. Edival receives commissions from various churches for their altars...