Gabriela Brandão’s grandmother is a deeply religious woman. Every day she prays, and for several years she had held one particular effigy in especially high esteem. But when her great-granddaughter had started playing with the figurine one day, she took it to the kitchen where her family saw it. The figurine wasn’t of the saint she’d thought it was.
Brandão is a makeup artist from São Paulo in Brazil, who now lives in Florianópolis in the Santa Catarina region of the South American country. Brazil is a deeply religious nation, whose predominant faith is Christianity. Indeed, two-thirds of the population identify as Roman Catholic.
One Brazilian who counts herself among the Roman Catholic faithful is Brandão’s grandmother, Dona Nely. Although they are related only by marriage, the family nonetheless appear to be close. In fact, it is typical in Brazil for extended families to maintain strong ties.
In honor of her religious beliefs, one year Nely’s boyfriend gave her a present. It was a figurine of a long-haired man wearing a long, brown coat over a floor-length white gown tied with a sash around the waist. It seemed to the great-grandmother to be an effigy of a saint.
Nely believed that the figurine was a depiction of Saint Anthony of Padua, a Portuguese Catholic priest born in the late-12th century. A renowned powerful preacher, Saint Anthony had fame for his in-depth knowledge of scripture and compassion for the sick and the poor.
Saint Anthony is perhaps one of Saint Francis of Assisi’s most well-known followers and is the patron saint of Lisbon and other places throughout Portugal and the former Portuguese Empire, which includes Brazil. Although his veneration varies slightly throughout the world, he has renown predominantly as the patron saint of recovering lost things.
People celebrate Saint Anthony across the world through churches, feast days, missions, shrines and statues. He has been depicted in figurines and works of art across the centuries, in which he typically bears a cross and holds an infant Jesus. In Nely’s effigy, however, he was empty handed.
Nevertheless, believing the figurine to be of Saint Anthony, Nely cherished it dearly. In fact, she began to pray to the little effigy. Whatever it is supposed to symbolize and whatever good fortune the saint is thought to bring, it’s clearly something that meant a lot to Brandão’s grandmother.
Then one day, the figurine caught the eye of Brandão’s daughter, Nely’s great-granddaughter. She had presumably picked it up off of the nightstand by her great-grandmother’s bed, where the effigy lived, and had started to play with it. She then took it to the kitchen, where the family were gathered.
Perhaps they had never seen it before, or perhaps they’d paid scant attention to it until that moment. But it was only then that they realized that something seemed a little wrong with the figurine. Sure, he may look like he was dressed like a monk or even a saint, but something wasn’t quite right.
“She had it for years and prayed to it as Saint Anthony almost every night by her bed,” Brandão explained to CBS News in January 2017. “But nobody noticed all these years.” However, now that she looked, she recognized that there was something odd about the statuette.
“That’s when I saw it and asked, ‘Guys, does Saint Anthony have long hair?’” Brandão explained to CBS News. It certainly would be unusual for a saint, particularly for Saint Anthony, who typically features either very short hair or a monk’s tonsure.
Or perhaps it was something a little more subtle that gave the game away. Because not only was the hair not a match for any representation of Saint Anthony that had gone before, but there was something else about this figurine too. This effigy, bizarrely, had sharp-angled ears.
As Brandão described, “I googled the logo on the bottom of the figurine and found out the truth. The moment I found out was one of the funniest moments of my entire life. We laughed about it for days.” So who was this mystery “saint” that her grandmother had been praying to?
As it happened, the figurine was a depiction of Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, a character whom J.R.R. Tolkien first created for his novel The Hobbit, but who later plays a role in Lord of the Rings. Nely, it turned out, had in fact been praying to an entirely fictional character for all those years.
Tolkien himself described the Elrond character in the books as “noble and fair as an elf-lord, as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard, as venerable as a king of dwarfs, and as kind as summer.” Nevertheless, Elrond has no known association with the Catholic faith.
So what did Nely make of the mix-up? Well, as Brandão explained to Buzzfeed News in January 2017, “We tried to explain right away but she didn’t understand at first.” Indeed, it can’t have been easy letting go of the supposed saint whom she had placed so much faith in for all that time.
It took a bit of persuasion from the family for Nely to fully comprehend what had happened. “The next day we explained again and she understood,” Brandão recalled. As she began to realize her error, however, her grandmother eventually saw the funny side herself.
“My mother-in-law explained to her that it wasn’t Saint Anthony,” Brandão further described to CBS News. “She laughed about it. And we got her a new one a few days later.” So Nely now has a new figurine of the real Saint Anthony. But fortunately she won’t have to pray for a lost sense of humor.
Brandão posted the mishap to Facebook, describing it as, “The funniest discovery of 2016.” And with about 8,000 comments, reactions and shares, many might agree. “I never expected any of this to happen, it’s crazy,” she told Buzzfeed of the response. “But it’s the funniest thing that ever happened to me.”