Although little is known of his life, we do know roughly what the renowned sculptor Aleijadinho looked like. In the Museu do Aleijadinho in Ouro Preto, a crude but vivid portrait shows an intense, aquiline man who is clearly what Brazilians call pardo – of mixed race. His hands are under his jacket, which seems a trivial detail unless you know what makes his achievements truly astonishing: the great sculptor of the barroco mineiro was presumably a leper, and produced much of his best work after he had lost the use of his hands.

Antônio Francisco Lisboa was born in Ouro Preto in 1738, the son of a Portuguese craftsman; his mother was probably a slave. For the first half of his exceptionally long life he was perfectly healthy, a womanizer and bon viveur despite his exclusively religious output. His prodigious talent – equally on display in wood or stone, human figures or abstract decoration – allowed him to set up a workshop with apprentices while still young, and he was much in demand. Although always based in Ouro Preto, he spent long periods in all the major historic towns (except Diamantina) working on commissions, but never travelled beyond the state. Self-taught, he was an obsessive reader of the Bible and medical textbooks (the only two obvious influences in his work), one supplying its imagery, the other underlying the anatomical detail of his human figures.

In the late 1770s, Aleijadinho’s life changed utterly. He began to suffer from a progressively debilitating disease, thought to have been leprosy. As it got worse he became a recluse, only venturing outdoors in the dark, and increasingly obsessed with his work. His physical disabilities were terrible: he lost his fingers, toes and the use of his lower legs. Sometimes the pain was so bad his apprentices had to stop him hacking away at the offending part of his body with a chisel.

Yet despite all this Aleijadinho actually increased his output, working with hammer and chisel strapped to his wrists by his apprentices, who moved him about on a wooden trolley. Under these conditions he sculpted his masterpiece, the 12 massive figures of the prophets and the 64 life-size Passion figures for the Basílica do Senhor Bom Jesus de Matosinhos in Congonhas, between 1796 and 1805. The figures were his swansong; failing eyesight finally forced him to stop work and he ended his life as a hermit in a hovel on the outskirts of Ouro Preto. The death he longed for finally came on November 18, 1814; he is buried in a simple grave in the church he attended all his life, Nossa Senhora da Conceição in Ouro Preto.

Aleijadinho’s prolific output would have been remarkable under any circumstances. Given his condition it was nothing short of miraculous – a triumph of the creative spirit. The bulk of his work is to be found in Ouro Preto, but there are significant items in Sabará, São João del Rei, Mariana and Congonhas. His unique achievement was to stay within the Baroque tradition, yet bring to its ornate conventions a raw physicality and unmatched technical skill.

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