Already an old man, sick and crippled, Aleijadinho sculpted The Prophets between 1800 and 1805. Symmetrically placed in front of the Basílica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, each of the 12 Old Testament figures was carved from one or two blocks of soapstone. Each carries a message in Latin: some are hopeful prophecies, others warn of the end of the world.
Much has been written about these sculptures – their dynamic quality, the sense of movement (much like a Hindu dance or a ballet), how they complement each other and how their arrangement prevents them from being seen in isolation.
Before working on The Prophets, Aleijadinho carved (or supervised his assistants in carving) the wooden statues that were placed in the six little chapels below. The chapels themselves – also of Aleijadinho’s design – and their placement on the sloping site are superb. The way the light falls on the pale sculpted domes against the dark mountain backdrop is truly beautiful.
Each chapel depicts a scene from Christ’s passion, and several portray Jesus with a red mark on his neck. While little is known of Aleijadinho’s politics, some local historians interpret this to mean that Aleijadinho intended to draw parallels between the martyred Christ and slain independence fighter Tiradentes. Aleijadinho’s sculptures of Roman soldiers lend support to this theory – they all sport ankle boots, a shoe style favored by the colonizing Portuguese.