Veado: a deer-headed statue that puts together a 12th-century legend and the big waves of Nazaré.5 min read
If you want you know what you can find at this site in the city of Nazaré, in central Portugal, it’s a 6.3-meter statue of a human character with the head of a deer, holding a surfboard.
But if you want to know how exactly this enigmatic statue came about, it’s a long long long story that goes back to the earliest days of Christianity.
In the fourth century, such a Ciriaco, a Greek monk, rescued a statuette called Our Lady of Nazareth that was believed to have been sculpted by none other than Saint Joseph.
It is said that the statuette was passed on from Saint Jerome to Saint Augustine, and it eventually landed in Spain, at the Cauliniana Monastery.
It remained there until the year 711, when the Moors were on the monastery’s doorstep. Then, as story goes, a monk named Romano accompanied by Roderic, the last Visigoth king of today’s Portugal, fled with the statuette, taking refuge in a fishing village that would eventually be named Nazaré, where he decided to live the rest of his days as a hermit in a beautiful grotto by the sea, that would house the statuette for the next several centuries. After his death and according to his wishes, the king buried him in the grotto. Roderic left the statue of the Black Madonna in the grotto on an altar.
It was September 14, 1182 when a noble warrior, such a Dom Fuas Roupinho, possibly a templar, was hunting in the area and caught sight of a deer through thick fog.
He was on the chase when the deer approached a cliff and jumped off, apparently into the void.
Dom Fuas Roupinho’s horse nearly followed suit, but managed to stop just in time, as the cliff was several meters high and the fall would have meant sure death.
Dom Fuas Roupinho soon realized that he had stopped right by the grotto with the statuette.
He attributed his survival to divine intervention and commissioned the construction of a chapel to house the statuette of Our Lady of Nazareth. Beside the chapel, on a rocky outcrop 110 meters above the Atlantic, one can still see the mark made in the rock by one of the hooves of Dom Fuas’ horse.
Since then, the deer has been a recurring image in the iconography related to the so-called Legend of Nazaré.
Over the centuries, history and legend intertwined in Nazaré, now home to 15,000 inhabitants.
The city is a historic, attractive jumble of red-roofed white houses, with a funicular railway that connects the beach and the cliffs. Since anyone can remember, it has survived on two industries: fishing and tourism in the summer.
But winter used to be dead in Nazaré, and many restaurants wouldn’t even bother to open.
Luckily more change was in store for its identity.
It was the wave, sometimes known as Big Mama, which has changed that. Now, with reliable conditions from October to March, the town is busy all year round with surfers and people who just want to marvel at the biggest waves of the world.
In the early 2000s, word started spreading among surfers that Nazaré was home to monster waves, thanks to a large underwater canyon just off the Portuguese coast.
Monster waves typically happen when water goes from very deep to very shallow over a short distance. Nazaré is a mainland aberration because of a vast undersea canyon that runs from 140 miles out to sea right up to Praia do Norte, and then abruptly stops. At points, it is at least three miles deep, basically three times the depth of the Grand Canyon!
Monster waves have crashed down on Praia do Norte for centuries. It’s just been a place of death, and generations of local fishermen have feared them.
And, despite for 30 years Portugal has been a surfing destination, notably at Peniche and Ericeira, still nobody went to Nazaré.
Ten years ago, the town was unknown even in big-wave circles, but that really changed when Garrett McNamara, a 52-year-old Hawaiian who is one of the pioneers of the sport, was given a tip-off by local bodyboarders. He came to Portugal for the first time in 2010. The following year he rode a monstrous wave measured at 23.77m and entered the Guinness World Records.
As a result, daredevil surfers started flocking to the town and in no time, surfing records were broken.
His record was broken in 2017 by Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa, who surfed a 24.4-meter wave.
In 2020, António Laureano broke the 30 meters limit by surfing an impressive 30.9-meter wave.
Images of these record-breaking rides is mesmerising for anyone: the surfers are tiny specks being chased by a terrifying wall of water eight storeys tall.
But the mystique of Nazaré comes also from its spectacular wipeouts. The Brazilian big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira nearly drowned in 2013 after being pounded by a wave estimated at 21 meters (but five years later she set the women’s world record riding a 20.8m wave), while the Australian legend Ross Clarke-Jones was stranded on the rocks and only escaped by scrambling up the sheer face of a 30m cliff.
Thus, to combine the legendary origins of Nazaré and its recent crowning as a world-class surfing destination, Agostinho Pires and Adália Alberto collaborated to create the statue known as Veado.
It stands tall on the road to the stubby red lighthouse, which has been captured in so many images of surfers riding monster waves, while on top of the cliff there’s the Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo, a stone outpost that dates from 1577…but this is another story!
Images from web – Google Research