Text description provided by the architects. The museum is located on the natural slope of the sanctuary’s ground, and, even though it represents a contrast because of its contemporary lines, that does not take away the protagonism from the whole secular setting. On the opposite, it was thought in a way as to ‘dialogue’ with the grounds where it has been built, as a meeting of past and present, one that guarantees the preservation of history for the future.
This dialogue with the grounds where the project is inserted and also to the people to which it is destined is one of the main characteristics of Gustavo Penna’s designs. Specifically speaking, when it comes to this museum, the concept went beyond that. Because the site is listed by the World Heritage and because it has a ritualistic vocation, the implementation of a contemporary building which is surrounded by edifications from the 18th century should, even more than in other cases, respect the topography – one that takes us back to the baroque principle of “search for the heavens”, since it is located on the top of a slope – and to pay reverence to the symbolism of its surroundings.
Despite being contemporary, the architecture of the museum harmonizes with the language that has been present in that site for centuries, through some of the project’s characteristics: a neutral implantation, never competing volumetrically with the main architectural complex; the ‘rhythm’ of the building, with its openings, proportions, alignments and hypsometries in similar scale to the rest of the complex; the immense foundation built in stone, which is much peculiar of the times when the sanctuary was built, by using stones that are naturally present in that region, so they do not feel ‘foreign’ to the setting; the lighter, more fluid upper portion and the walls whitewashed and painted with mineral paint – the same used in the renovation of the Christ’s Steps chapels and the main church itself, as approved by the Iphan; the long and smooth curvature of the building, which “spreads itself on the slope, in a concave shape that echoes the oval shape of the pilgrimage route right under it, as if they both fit each other”, in the words of Gustavo Penna.
In 3,500m² of built area, the museum is divided into three floors. On the main level, there are a reception hall and the room of permanent exhibition, comprised of four smaller spaces: an introductory room, the exposition corridor, the exhibition room and a gift shop and café. On the lower level, there is a hall and an access to the area of permanent and temporary exhibition, and also to the library and documentation area (which will consolidate the museum as a reference center for the Brazilian baroque) and to the administrative section. There is also an open, unsheltered amphitheater. And finally, on the underground level, there is the Reference Center for the Baroque, an atelier for stone-related work.
“Another aspect of extreme importance to me is that this is all side by side with the Twelve Prophets, the masterpiece of Aleijadinho, the biggest artist in the history of all Americas. And it’s also there with the six chapels that describe the Passion, which are wonderful. Our design had to be a timeless one, even though it’s also a witness of its own time and is proud to state its poetry, respect and balance. The architecture of the Congonhas Museum feels secure enough to trail the path of kindness, reverence, conscience and respect for the Bom Jesus de Matosinhos Sanctuary,” Penna describes.
“The museum wants to praise the symbolic axis that unites the different planes of sacred, memory and everyday life. We wanted to establish a bond, an association with the symbolic grounds, in order to preserve the preexisting hierarchy, the consistency and the solidity of the historic and artistic collection, the reaffirm and ensure this whole heritage,” adds project coordinator and architect Laura Penna.
The inside of the museum is made out of fluid spaces. “Clean, white, clear, not fragmented at all. It’s baroque itself translated by contemporaneity, where there is no rupture, but a curve, a way to heaven,” Gustavo Penna explains. In the spaces of the museum, the architectural solutions were aimed to offer as many lighting resources as possible, in order to make more flexible and enrich the possibilities for the creation of museographic sceneries. Through shafts in the dry walls of the permanent exhibition room, and through features and implements in the flooring of the surrounding areas, it is possible to come up with any museographic arrangement.
If the architecture of the Congonhas Museum mimics its surroundings, integrating the building into the preexisting heritage, then on the inside the collection is the representation of the city and what formed it: faith, devotion, the work and figure of Aleijadinho, and Congonhas itself, with its ethnic, historic and cultural characteristics. “The museum portraits the town in its dimensions as a work of art, a sacred place, a representation of the heritage and a demonstration of faith, through the exhibition of the ex-votos and the documentation, the films, publications and the study of the reproductions of the Twelve Prophets, in order to preserve them as a mark of baroque art,” says Sérgio Rodrigo Reis, president of the Municipal Foundation for Culture, Leisure and Tourism (Fundação Municipal de Cultura, Lazer e Turismo – Fumcult), who is going to be responsible for the administration of the museum. “Congonhas inaugurates in Brazil the concept of a ‘site museum’, meaning, one that was built to improve the understanding of the place where it is located.”
The permanent exhibition is composed of 342 ex-votos that date from the 18th to the 20th centuries, from the private collection of Márcia de Moura Castro, acquired by Iphan in 2011. From the pieces, it is possible not only to better understand the whole process of devotion and faith, but also the cultural richness of its symbolism. Also, there is a genuine relish among the ex-votos in terms of votive offerings: a painting, made on a wooden board in the 19th century by Euclásio Ventura, which is the only known image of Aleijadinho. It was declared missing in Congonhas in 1910, but was bought by a collector afterwards and then returned to the Minas Gerais government. A year ago, the museum started negotiating – successfully – the return of the piece of work to Congonhas.
Another important collection is the consolidated reference library on the themes of faith, devotion, the work of Aleijadinho and on the history and culture of Congonhas. It comprises around 4,000 books and 3,000 newspaper scraps, acquired from private libraries, from selected city libraries and also from Unesco’s and Iphan’s. Even in the gift shop, the culture of Congonhas is present: ever since he became the head of Fumcult, Sérgio Reis has involved the whole community in the process of implantation of the museum, through “rescuing the statement of faith”. That means the local artisans who produce the traditional crosses of Santa Cruz (made in crepe paper and usually hanged outside of houses), the rosaries made out of Job’s tears beads, the carpets made of salt, sawdust and soapstone and the decoration of the processions’ andores will see their work for sale to visitors as souvenirs.
The opening of the Congonhas Museum will also bring visibility to actions that have been previously implemented in the Bom Jesus de Matosinhos Sanctuary, like the theatrical lighting of the Twelve Prophets and the chapels that depict the Passion; the first app in Brazil for a virtual visit to a city (and to the sanctuary within, through the website www.eravirtual.org); another app with an audio guide that can be downloaded by a visitor on their phone and makes all the information available while visiting the sanctuary; acoustic performances in the museum’s amphitheater (with 100 seats), intending to rediscover the colonial music of Minas; and the release of three publications (one covering the collection of the museum and two others on Congonhas).
Another action, a more delicate one, concerns the reproduction of the Twelve Prophets of Aleijadinho, which are slowly deteriorating due to the weather. The museum leads a research team that has been studying the reproduction of the figures through two processes: the first (that has been used already to replicate two of them, using a soapstone resin) is a high technology one and consists in scanning the statues for later reproduction. The second process is a study involving molds of the works, made in the 1960s (like Rodin used to do) to see if the reproduction from them would be possible.