Friday, June 19, 2015

Sunday Mass in a Monastery and Hitting the Museum Mile

Sunday, June 14, 2015
Mass in a 16th Century Monastery, Hitting the Museums and Dinner with Friends

            My new Polish friend Prof. Anna Sobolewska was supposed to accompany me to Sunday Mass at 10.00 am at the 16th century Monastery of Saint Benedict (Monaesterio de Sao Bento) and I was delighted at the thought of her company. But by 8.00 am, she texted me to say that she had to cancel her plans as her flight was pre-poned and she had not yet packed for departure. This left me to shower and eat a gargantuan breakfast with the intention of finishing the bits and bobs in my fridge: cereal with milk, passionfruit yogurt, ham and blue cheese croissant, papaya, coffee—all while incomprehensible Portuguese TV was on! Then I took the metro to Urugiana Metro station from where I used my Rio city map to find my way to the Monastery.

            The area was absolutely deserted at 9. 30 am—good job I found out in my guidebook only later that it is ill-advised to wander the downtown area at the weekends when it is empty as all sorts of vagrants hang around there and they can be dangerous! Although by this point in my stay in Rio, I had become accustomed to watching my back (literally), I still ought not to have gone in search of such a remote church on my own. But search for it I did! And it was really hard to find—being perched high on a hill with a winding route I had to climb.

 Mass at the Monasterio de Sao Bento:

            And the reason I chose to hear Sunday morning Mass at such a remote church was because it was held in an old Benedictine monastery that is still a working habitat for monks. They monks sing the Mass at 10.00 am on Sundays using the Gregorian chant. Since I get to hear this beloved ecclesiastical music only rarely, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. So there I was! When I finally found the place, I was amazed at the plain, unadorned exterior of the church that looked like a largeish house. However, although it was still only 9. 50 and Mass wasn’t going to start for another 10 minutes, I entered the huge, grand Church doors only to discover that it was packed to the gills with standing room only!

            And what a church it turned out to be! If there was only one church I would choose to see in Rio, it would be this one. It was simply Over The Top exuberant. It is the finest example of Brazilian Baroque in Rio, and you would be well-advised to take along your sunglasses as there are countless kilos of gold all over the church. Every single inch of it is strung with carved wooden decoration in the Baroque mode (faintly reminiscent of my favorite 16th century English wood carver Sir Grinling Gibbons) that is then completely covered with gold leaf. A few minutes later, Mass began. I had found a corner in which to stand peacefully and to observe the Eucharistic celebration and I had a sheet of paper with the day’s liturgy in Portuguese but which I could easily follow.

A con-celebrated Mass, it had all the trappings of grandeur—a bevy of impressive-vestmented priests, a long procession of monks wearing their traditional Benedictine brown robes, lots of incense floating about the church and rising up to the gilded altar constructed in the Portuguese tiers with which I was, by then, completely familiar. I love the drama of the Eucharist in such opulent surroundings with music (yes, those stirring Gregorian chants were profoundly atmospheric); but what is heartening when one travels outside the US is how vigorous congregation response is. The thousands who filled the church were fervent, devout, loud in their responses, attentive to the proceedings—in every respect, they were active participants and where the hymns were common ones in Portuguese, they sang lustily. Just before Mass ended, I crept into the Blessed Sacrament Altar which is the holiest and most ornate part of this church—ever single inch in this chapel is covered in pure gold! The church is being lovingly refurbished and although it dates from 1590 when it was first founded, you would think it was built yesterday—so fresh and stunning is the interior.  I loved every second of it and was gratified that I took the risk to seek and find this church despite the presumed dangers. Here is a link to the church website for anyone interested:

 Marching Off to Museums:

            It was time to hit the Museum Mile—Rio has several and had I more time, I would, no doubt, have seen them all. But I had to make choices and every guidebook had extolled the virtues of two: the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of National History—so those were the ones I chose. As luck would have it, entry to both museums is free on Sundays. Although I expected them to be mobbed, I decided to go on a Sunday anyway.

 Popping into Candelaria Church:  

It was about a fifteen minute walk from the Monastery through the heart of Centro (downtown Rio) to the Museum of Fine Arts—at which point I passed by and briefly entered the Church of Candelaria—Igrejia de Candelaria. This church reminds one immediately of the Pantheon in Paris or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on the Berliner Dom in Berlin—like all of them, it has a gigantic dome and twin spires in the front—very different from most of the churches in Rio that are built in the Portuguese vein, this one is very imposingly Neo-Classical. Inside, there are paintings, stained glass windows, an ornate carved pulpit, towering Greek-style Doric pillars, cupolas and interior domes—all very moving indeed. Lots of tour buses lined the square and the presence of al lot of folks meant that the church was between Masses. Here is the website:

Viewing the Municipal Theater:

            I arrived at the lovely Neo-Classical building of the Museum of Fine Arts at 11. 50 and discovered that there was one woman waiting at the entrance. Turned out on Sundays, the Museum does not open until 12 noon. That gave me 10 minutes to survey the lovely area outside the museum which comprises a beautifully-designed square over which the Municipal Theater (Theatro Municipal) dominates. This beautiful building was constructed in 1909 in imitation of Paris’ Opera Garnier as a part of the area to be known as Cinelandia—a space devoted to the Arts and Culture. Like the Opera Garnier in Paris, it presents a different scene from each changing perspective. From the outside itself, I could see how well Baroque influence had been translated into its design. It has a massive gilded ornament on the towering cupola, Greek pillars, heavy wrought-iron gates and walls covered with paintings. Guided tours are offered during the week but alas, none on Sunday. Hence, I missed the opportunity to peek into one of the most elaborate interiors in Rio. Operas and other musical compositions continue to be presented here and some of the world’s best-known performers have graced its stage. After taking many pictures from varied angles, I returned to the Museum. Here is their website:

 Off to the Museum of Fine Arts:

            Finally, at 12 noon, I was given a free ticket to enter the Museum of Fine Arts and for the next one and a half hour, by focusing on the main highlights contained within, I acquired a very comprehensive idea of the collection. It is the pride and joy of Rio and while it is small by international standards, it contains a very heartening clutch of works by artists of which I had never heard but who are stars in the Brazilian cultural firmament. Among the most stirring works I saw were:

1.      The Sculpture Gallery which contains casts of some of the world’s best-known sculptural works such as the Laocoon (from the Vatican), the Winged Victory of Samotrace (from the Louvre) and Michaelangelo’s Prisoner (from the Academia in Venice). Each of these was a joy to revisit.

2.      Victor Meirelles: The First Mass in Brazil, painted in 1861 it is an imagined replica of Jesuit priests saying their first Mass upon landing on Brazilian shores soon after the colonial discovery of the country.     

3.      Victor Meirelles: The Battle of Guararappes. A huge floor-to-ceiling canvas that has a touching self-portrait of the artist embedded in it seen wearing a cap with the figure 33 on it.

4.      Pedro America: The Battle of Avai. It is supposed to be the largest canvas ever painted on an easel. It covers floor to ceiling of a very large gallery and is deeply impressive.

5.      Almeida’s Arrufos (The Tiff): Not a relative, this 19th century artist depicts a married couple that is in disagreement. The exaggerated emotion of the Victorian Age is very amusingly depicted.

There was a great deal of Modern Art as well, but I very quickly went through it all as I wished to focus on the work of Brazil’s best-known creators. It was a wonderful opportunity to discover the richness of the country’s artistic tradition but also to discover that despite the fact that the museum is free on Sundays, I was one of no more than 20 people in the entire building. In fact, the guards outnumbered the patrons!  Such a pity! 

Exploring The National History Museum:

It was time then to move on to the National History Museum—by this time it was 1. 30 and I was glad for the sandwiches in my bag as not a single restaurant is open. Brazilians take Sunday rest very seriously, it appears and since the Museum of Fine Arts has no café, I might have gone hungry had I not carried food (This is the reason why I always make sure I have snacks like nuts and protein bars with a bottle of water in my bag when I travel for I never want to be caught hungry and lacking energy).

Same story as I attempted to find this museum. Every street was deserted. Although this is the very center of the city, the fact that it is highly commercial and surrounded by business high rise buildings means that there is no one around on Sundays. Following my map, I found it tucked away in a hidden corner and since it only opened at 2. 00 pm on Sundays, I had a 5-minute wait before I was let in with about 10 other people.  

But what a brilliant museum it is! From the minute you enter the fort-like building—a beautifully well-preserved relic of Brazil’s colonial past, you are swept into a history of the country that is chronologically presented with the greatest variety of displays. At the end of the day what I discovered about Brazilian history in under two hours was just astounding. There are basically three phrases to it: the Pre-Colonial Period with emphasis on Brazil’s indigenous people (there were a lot of anthropological artifacts here); the Colonial Period (this was the most extensive as it contained a great amount of detail on the Portuguese discovery and colonization of Brazil, the moving of the capital from Lisbon to Rio by Dom Pedro II to escape Napoleon’s takeover of Europe, the construction of the grand city of Rio in imitation of Baron Hausmann’s Paris. This portion included the sad history of slavery in Brazil for the Portuguese brought in slaves from Africa and, as everywhere in the world, treated them in horrendous fashion. Finally, there were extensive galleries on Post-Colonial Brazil (the country became independent in 1822 although slavery continued until 1833).  Through paintings, dioramas, sculpture, china, glass, pottery, metal objects, jewelry, costume and clothing, one could see the entire drama of Brazilian history unfold—and it was terrific. I found myself fully absorbed and dearly wished to have had more time and energy to linger.

But, as can be imagined, by then I was well and truly wilting and had only one goal in mind—to get back to my apartment for an urgent lie-down. I found the Metro station after a long uphill trudge and when I was in the darkened cool interior of my room, I made myself a substantial snack of fruit and yogurt and then fell upon my bed exhausted and had a long nap. When I awoke, about an hour later, it was time for me to dress and go out to dinner with my friends—and I looked forward to the interaction as, being alone, I had not spoken to a soul all day!

 Drinks at Home and then Pizza Dinner with Friends in Santa Teresa:

            When I was ready, I climbed the hill and in five minutes was in the terrace apartment of my friend Rosana and her partner Andrew. They had invited me for drinks in their home and before long, we were joined by Renata, another Professor friend of theirs. Rosana then elected to make us caprinhas—but this time with a twist. She used fresh passionfruit--pulp and juice of this extremely flavorful fruit--mixed it with cashaca and voila! With ice clinking in the glass, it made for a very refreshing drink as we nibbled on olives, cheese and nuts.

About an hour later, we left the apartment to go out in search of dinner—they suggested we take a taxi to the hills of Santa Teresa and within a few minutes, we hailed one and were in Guimares Square where I had been a couple of nights previously. In a lovely outdoor patio of a restaurant called Cafecito whose courtyard and architecture was very reminiscent of Goa or Bungalow 9 in Bombay, we had a delicious Pizza Margarita and one with flash-fried shrimp that was simply outstanding. What a great group we were—in deference to me, the conversation was entirely in English and I was struck by the unspoken agreement to which they came as they considerately wished to include me in it. It is this sort of sensitivity to the foreigner that I find particularly heartening when I am traveling and I did appreciate the effort that my friends made on my behalf.

Soon it was time to say goodbye and walking down Guimares, we found a taxi before long. Renata, who lives in Ipanema, jumped into it and dropped me off, three minutes later, at my building. All that was left then was to check my email (yes, I finally did have internet connectivity in my apartment!) and get ready for bed.

Until tomorrow, ciao!     


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