Saint George in Brasilia



It is an iconic scene, an image almost instantly recognised across the world wherever Christianity has left its mark: the mounted knight slaying the dragon, Saint George. Widely venerated across the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican world, the patron saint of countless families, cities, and nations, George the dragon slayer counts among the most popular images of human civilisation since the early modern period. The above photo may thus appear to show merely one instantiation of a popular icon, nothing special.

I took this picture at a Capoeira festival in Paranoá, a rugged satellite of Brazil’s glossy modernist capital Brasilia. Structured like a military barrack, the town originally housed workers who dammed the Paranoáriver to form an artificial lake which provides a picturesque backdrop to and leisurely escape from the planned capital and contributes to tempering the city’s climate. Located on the far side of the lake, Paranoá was conveniently hidden from sight by a row of trees upon completion of Brazil’s new capital in the middle of the 20th century. The workers, recruited largely from the former centres of the colonial slave-economy, became the constitutive absence to the ascending metropolis. Located on the border of Paranoá, the wall featuring the iconic life-size mural above constitutes the only vertical enclosure to a site of Afro-Brazilian celebration, ritual and training, named ‘Quilombo’ in reference to the mythical free-towns founded by outcasts and run-away slaves during colonialism. Capoeira, an ephemeral ritual practice which sits so uneasily with Western categories – is it dance or fight? sacred or profane? – has historically constituted a form of resistance to the economic and spiritual systems of oppression since colonial slavery (Assunção 2005). Why, then, is Saint George (São Jorge) so prominently featured at this site? Does this white, Christian, European icon not represent precisely what is being resisted in Afro-Brazilian rituals such as Capoeira? At stake in the above picture is thus not merely a cultural curiosity - why is a white Christian Saint represented in a site of Afro-Brazilian counter-culture? – but a perplexing question of modernity, urbanity, and ultimately power: How can an icon of oppression take on creative capacities beyond the instance of its imposition?

A hidden aim of worship?

‘Here in Brazil, São Jorge isn’t your Saint George, he is our Ogum’

A common explanation for the perplexing presence of Saint George far outside the institutional reaches of Christianity suggests a hidden message: the real aim of worship behind the superficial Christian icon is Ogum, a West-African Yoruba deity associated with warfare and metal work. In fact, such association of Christian saints with West-African deities (orixás) is shared across so called ‘syncretic’ religions of the Caribbean and Latin America like Brazilian Candomblé, Haitian Voodoo, and Cuban Santeria. “The idea of syncretism would indicate that these religions were formed by mixing the dominant Catholicism with suppressed African traditions during the time of slavery” (Schmidt, 2006, p.236). As some claim, the imagery of Saint George functions merely as a disguise for the ‘real’ aim of worship, in this case the Yoruban deity (or orixá) Ogum. And indeed, the inscription on the above mural, Guerreiro de Ogum, appears to confirm this cultural ‘under-cover-operation’ according to which the imagery of the white knight was employed by African slaves during Colonialism to preserve their original spirituality and religion under the veneer of catholic veneration, prompting a critical question: “Was black Christianity anything more than a varnish barely covering the persistence of ancestral ‘superstitions’?” (Bastide 1978, p.19). While such cover-up narratives might be appealing, the persistence of Christian iconography reveals a critical pitfall of such simplistic accounts: “If they used Christianity just as a cover-up during the period of slavery, why not stop it now?” (Schmidt, 2006, p.236).

The very steadfastness of Christian iconography – not only in the ritual practice of Candomblé but in Brazilian popular culture more generally – despite a strong ‘process of purging’ after the end of formal slavery (Schmidt, 2006) challenges commonly held understandings of Christian saints as superficial covers for West-African spiritual practices. From murals in public urban spaces, to folk- and pop-songs, from commercial merchandise to personal talismans, the image of the mounted white knight slaying the dragon and the name São Jorge crop up with astonishing ubiquity in the modern everyday life of 21st century Brazil. Instead of seeing behind the Guerreiro de Ogum only a pristine, ‘original’ African form of worship preserved under the vacuum seal of catholic iconography, it is key to recognise the ontological/cosmological mechanisms that have evolved since colonial rule. In other words, the common conceptual horizon which reduces the encounter of various peoples in colonial Brazil (Yoruba, Bantu, Jeje, Mandingo, Portuguese, indigenous tribes etc.) to a simple domination/submission-mechanism can only configure the peculiar popularity of Christian iconography today in two ways: either as a ‘mixture’, that is, as a muddle of Christian and African practices of worship, a kind of ‘confusion’ on the part of a half-converted inferior people who never ascended to full Christianity; or else, as a strategic ‘disguise’, a superficial ‘trick’ played by means of Christian symbols. Does Christianity extinguish African spirituality or does the latter secretly efface the former. Is it Saint George or Ogum? The phenomenon of the Guerreiro de Ogum unsettles these essentialising claims. Could this Guerreiro be something other than a ‘stain’ of (partial) Christian domination or a ‘residue’ of an antiquated colonial game of spiritual hide-and-seek?

In the following I go on to explore some of the key ritual practices and conceptual innovations of Candomblé, providing some first glimpses at the cosmological terrain of a “living religion” (Bastide 1978, p.24) which assembles a subversive movement of agency.

Candomblé cosmology – the distributed person

Around its two key dynamics, possession and recognition, Candomblé constitutes an unstable ontological terrain of distributed persons and encounters. The world of Candomblé is not fundamentally made up of sovereign, acting subjects and passive objects - our modern ontological Lego-pieces - but starts with “bodies not fully in control of their inhabitants” (Perkinson, 2001, 566-7). ‘Possession’, which manifests as a “temporary takeover of living bodies” (Perkinson, 2001, p.573), constitutes a fundamental dynamic of being human. These eerie encounters materialize at first in a total breakdown of the individual agent. The first contact with an orixá(deity) through the “manifestation of the spirits inside a human body” (Schmidt, 2006, p.238) is one of deep turmoil and conflict. After such a deeply confusing ‘encounter’, a Mae (mother) or Pai (Father) de santo, the ritual facilitators of Candomblé, is sought out to provide guidance and initiation. Through initiation, the Mae assists the “attempt by the initiate to regain agency over her own body and her own life” (Sansi 2007, p.24). While the Mae is well-versed in ritual facilitation, the particular encounter and possession always retains a higher level of ‘reality’ that cannot be bound by any ritual codex. All a Mae de santo can do is to provide guidance to her initiate in establishing a stable relation with her orixá: “to ‘tame’ the body” (Sansi 2007). The gift of certain humans is a bodily receptivity to a unique incarnation of the spirits, a strong connection that goes beyond the conventional universalizing practices. Candomblé thus exhibits a ‘metamorphosis’ in which the relations of spirits are constantly re-incarnated.

Initiation culminates in a practice called ‘feitura do santo’, the ‘making of the saint’ (Sansi, 2007). The Portuguese word ‘santo’ should, however, not be confused with the common notion of the saint, since the notion of ‘making’ clearly escapes our conventional relation of worship towards saints. In Candomblé, “making the saint … is also making oneself” (Sansi 2007, p.25). ‘Making oneself’ is no mere metaphor. The practices of “raspar and dar de comer a cabeça” (Sansi, 2007, p.29), ‘shaving and feeding the head’ are no mere representational gestures of worship towards a transcendent god but summon an immanent spirit in the body. The santo is ‘made’ in a double incarnation: human body and material altar, the assento (seat). Assentos, the seats of the santos/orixá, are said to “have a life of their own” (Sansi, 2007, p.40). They are “constantly being re-enacted, re-made; by being fed, cleaned, used, re-wrapped, new elements appear.” (Sansi 2007, p.40). Across these various material ‘seats’ “personhood [is] distributed in the milieu, beyond the body-boundary” (Gell 1998, p.104). The human body is but one site of incarnation for a distributed person. “In the assento the saint sits; in the human body the saint dances” (Sansi 2007, p.27).

The ‘making’ of the saint constitutes a paradoxical case for our modern metaphysics since the initiate’s “actions go slightly beyond them” (Latour, 1998, p.52). That which is made, santo, becomes the ‘actant’ upon its maker: “Divinities are not substances … They are all action” (Latour, 1998, p.50). A peculiar transformation of ‘action’ which is not fixed between subjects (actors) and objects (non-actors) but moves across, from one site of action to another. What emerges is a perplexing ecology of latent actants mutually and reciprocally ‘making’ each other. Through an assemblage of seemingly random objects, so called ‘fetishes’, the blaze of possession finds stabilisation in a more temperate energy. Human body and altar become two sites of incarnation for the santo/orixá. “The assento is not the image but the house of the orixá” (Sansi 2007, p.26). The relation at play is of material incarnation not of representational worship. Images of saints, like the iconography of São Jorge are thus “not necessarily objects of Catholic devotion on a candomblé altar, but just one more element of decoration and enhancement of the axé” (Sansi 2007, p.35). The orixá are not transcendent gods but immanent personalized incorporations of axé, cosmological life force, across various sites (human body, place, plant, stone).

The ‘finding’ of ‘fetishes’ reveals the key dynamic of ‘recognition’ across heterogenous materials in Candomblé. The assemblages of ‘presents’ that make up the ‘seat’ for the santo/spirit may appear “random, disordered” (Sansi 2007, p.35) from the perspective of a Western representational logic of meaningful connections. What makes the assemblage of objects in Candomblé meaningful is not reducible to the ‘object itself’, not even in the metaphorical sense in which an object ‘stands for’ something else. As opposed to representation (‘standing-for’), ‘finding’ of objects is always a recognition of a relation, neither ‘projected’ by a subject nor ‘resting’ in the object. The cosmic energy of Candomblé, axé, is not a quality of things but a quality of relational encounters (Sansi 2007). These encounters are, however, not external to self-contained, separate individuals, but ‘internal’ to the santo/orixá in his recognition of different parts of his distributed person: It is not an encounter of stone (otá) and human, but a self-recognition of the orixá through his incarnation across those materials. Thus, to ‘know’ means to recognize oneself as distributed beyond the supposed interiority of the psychological self and physical body. The cross-material distributed person of Candomblé, manifesting in ever-open self-recognitions of immanent orixá-deities vibrating across bodies, walls, stones, trees etc., gives rise to a world of encounters of resonance.

Resonant encounters

The dynamism at the heart of candomblé is one of constantly varying incarnations where the ‘same’ materials are different depending on the assemblage within which they become enacted. This permits us to recognize that what is at stake in the mural of the Guerreiro is hardly a dispute over claims of worship or a mere appropriation of foreign icons. The question then has changed from ‘what is the meaning of this mural?’ to ‘how is it variously enacted in association with the humans who dance/fight/play in front of it?’. The mural had originally been painted by the two young men who had bought the plot seeking independence. Having moved to Brasilia from Rio de Janiero as children – their parents belonging to the (lower) middle class of administrators, military personnel and public officials who were recruited to populate and staff the new capital – these young men could only afford a plot far outside the city centre and landed in the zone between Paranoá and the lake. After frequent assaults and burglary, having exhausted all ‘hardware’ options to secure their property, they resorted to their Christian families’ patron, Saint George. And curiously, the mural of the white knight appeared to succeeded where fences and locks had repeatedly failed. The site was finally inaugurated as a social centre for capoeira training for the local youth as intended by the two young owners, themselves avid capoeiristas. The humans brought together for training, ritual and celebration under the Guerreiro today are the children of both the bright and the dark side born by Brasilia: the shining new capital and its history of (post-)colonial displacement; a kind of scar tissue across some of the many cuts through the social fabric of the modernist metropole. The Guerreiro de Ogum has recognised himself in the encounters facilitated by capoeira at Quilombo. The scattered parts spit out by the spiritual quake spurred by the construction of Brasilia finds a new resonance. Are these not indicators that the cosmology of candomblé which germinated in the colonial encounter is far more than a religious receptacle for (and display of) dated, folkloric rituals?

The vocabulary of traces allows us to conceptually follow this spiritual-material assemblage of dancing bodies, (post-)colonial urbanity and Christian iconography. The present case of the Guerreiro materializes the theoretical value of ‘traces’. As has turned out, the persistence of catholic iconography is poorly accounted for by reducing it to either a left-over of past strategies of disguise for hidden African worship (residue), or to an impure mixture of two disjointed spiritual cosmologies into a shaggy hybrid (stain). A trace is not just a faint left-over, the footprints of a historic beast that has long gone extinct, a relic. Bearing the ripples of the colonial collision, the mural of the Guerreiro de Ogum tells the story of an encounter which constitutes a creative mutation highly contingent upon the peculiar socio-material history of Brasilia. Echoing a whole history of creative subversions spurred by candomblé in Portugal’s former colony, the mural traces the ongoing effects of an embodied/material history of violent encounters, a process that is alive and creative of space and identity in modern Brazil. Cutting across dances, songs and concrete walls alike the icon of the mounted knight becomes an ever-morphing collection traces, crystallizing a material memory of displacement and encounter, possession and recognition. Memory here is not the retrieval of a sealed-off past but the assembling of scattered materials into resonance: remembering. Not the conservation of a past wholeness but the ongoing process of assembling the heterogeneous components of various lines of contingency, a tangle of traces that allows for ever-morphing incarnations of distributed persons. If traces such as the mural of the Guerreiroserve as an archive, it is not merely as the residue of a colonial past, but as mutating trajectories at the heart of modern Brazil.


Assunção, M.R., 2005. Capoeira: The history of an Afro-Brazilian martial art. Routledge.

Bastide, R. (1978). The African Religions of Brazil, trans. Helen Sebba. Baltimore The Johns Hopkins University Press, 197811960, 165.

Gell, A., 1998. Art and agency: an anthropological theory. Clarendon Press.

Latour, B., Smith, B. and Weintraub, E., 2010. On the modern cult of the factish gods (p. 93). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Perkinson, J.W., 2015. Political Spirituality in an Age of Eco-apocalypse: Communication and Struggle Across Species, Cultures, and Religions. Springer.

Perkinson, J., 2001. Ogou's iron or jesus' irony: Who's zooming who in diasporic possession cult activity?. The Journal of religion, 81(4), pp.566-594.

Sansi, R., 2007. Fetishes and monuments: Afro-Brazilian art and culture in the 20th century (Vol. 6). Berghahn Books.

Schmidt, B.E., 2006. The creation of Afro-Caribbean religions and their incorporation of Christian elements: A critique against syncretism. Transformation, 23(4), pp.236-243.

© 2020 by KONESH

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