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Brasília, Brazil

Cathedral of Brasília

A stunning Catholic cathedral built by a curve-loving communist in Brazil’s newly created capital.  

Designed by the acclaimed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the Cathedral of Brasília is an almost crown-like hyperboloid structure that appears pinned to the ground. The building’s appearance, with its striking shape and gorgeous stained glass ceiling, is just as intriguing as its history.

The cornerstone for the Cathedral of Brasília was laid in September 1958. The main frame of the cathedral was completed two years later, but then, as with many construction projects in Brasília at that time, everything ground to a halt.

President Juscelino Kubitschek was overseeing the construction of Brasília, Brazil’s new capital, when his term ended in 1961. Construction stalled on numerous projects, including the cathedral. To get things moving again, the cathedral was handed over to the Catholic Church, despite Kubitschek’s initial idea of creating a state-funded and interdenominational cathedral open to all faiths.

Construction continued anew. The cathedral was consecrated in 1968, albeit without a roof, and finally opened to the public in 1970. It became one of many works in Brasília by Oscar Niemeyer, who, on this project, was ably assisted by the Brazilian architect and urban planner, Lúcio Costa.

Both men, incidentally, were known communists. Due to his political beliefs, Niemeyer was forced into exile following the start of the military dictatorship of Brazil in 1964, not long after he designed the cathedral. Years later, from 1992 to 1996, he served as the president of the Brazilian Communist Party.

The Cathedral of Brasília is undeniably an impressive sight. Its exterior is dominated by 16 curved concrete columns (Niemeyer loved curves), each weighing 90 tons. These curve inwards, meeting briefly before branching back outwards and upwards to give the structure its hyperboloid, or hourglass, shape. It bears some resemblance to a white crown, or crown of thorns, in this case rising up to a height of about 131 feet.

Near the entrance to the cathedral stand four bronze sculptures representing the Four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each is about 9.8 feet tall. Inside the cathedral’s spacious interior hang three angel sculptures by Alfredo Ceschiatti and Dante Croce. These range from 7.3 feet to 14 feet tall and hang above the nave of the cathedral. Above them is the cathedral’s colorful stained-glass ceiling, composed of a series of 98-feet-high triangles.

Other notable elements of the Cathedral of Brasília include its altar, which was donated by Pope Paul VI. The four bells in the cathedral’s bell tower, meanwhile, were donated by Spain. The stark concrete bell tower stands just outside the cathedral.

As for architect Oscar Niemeyer, he died on December 5, 2012, in a hospital in Rio de Janeiro. He was just 10 days shy of his 105th birthday. His BBC obituary included the following:

“Rejecting the cube shapes favoured by his modernist predecessors, Niemeyer built some of the world’s most striking buildings – monumental, curving concrete and glass structures which almost defy description.” The Cathedral of Brasília, in a nutshell.