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The Portuguese colony of Christian imagination in India  

Indian Christians resisted attempts to re-imagine Christian themes according to indigenous patterns

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The Portuguese colony of Christian imagination in India   

The top part of the wood-carved altar that touches the top of the 83-feet-high Cathedral of Bom Jesu in Old Goa, where the mortal remains of Francis Xavier, the 16th-century Jesuit missionary, are kept. (Photo: Wikimedia)

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This is the second part of Indian Jesuit writer Father Myron Pereira's reflection on the influence of early Jesuits in the development of Christian art India:

The churches of Portuguese India, particularly from the 16th to the 18th century, displayed examples of Christian iconography. These were a unique blend of European inspiration and local Indian techniques.

The most influential European style of that time was the Baroque. It is a style that used exaggerated motion and precise detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance and grandeur. It was a style encouraged by the Catholic Church, which felt it should communicate religious themes with emotional involvement — a direct reaction to the Protestant attitude of the Reformation, which emphasized austere décor and minimalism.

So the Baroque makes itself felt in painting, sculpture, architecture, music and theater, impressing the viewer with its sense of triumph, power and control. This is why Baroque is often called "Jesuit art." 

We could see exquisite wood carvings in all these old Portuguese churches in Bassein (Vasai), Salsette (north Mumbai), Goa and South India. The traditional wood carvings that grace the altarpieces are called retablos.

A retablo is an Iberian (Spanish or Portuguese) devotional painting or sculpture, a decorative tableau which uses iconography derived from traditional Catholic church art. The Spanish word means "board behind."

Portuguese retablos of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance were extremely large and elaborate, typically using carved and gilded wood, rising as high as 40 feet or more. The tradition of making them occurs wherever the Spanish or Portuguese established their churches, that is, in the Americas or South Asia.

Typical of the retablo design are the curvy pillars, niches for the various patron saints, and the detailing of literally every square inch of the altarpiece with intricate designs of flowers, angel faces, leaves and creepers, etc. Usually the whole design is covered in gold leaf.

Together with the retablos, we may also mention the life-size statues of the saints (carved in wood), or relief carvings of saints or Biblical scenes found on the retablos, pulpits and frames hung along the church walls.

The motifs — twisted wine creepers, corn, wheat and acanthus leaves — are plants that do not grow in India, so the decorative flora seems to have been imported. Christian icons had to possess certain features, which indigenous sculptors presumably acquired through the study of imported images that followed European naturalism.

Local artists never tried to decode the complexity of form and symbol. Both Hindu and Christian artists adhered to these traditions and shied away from any modification.

This highly decorative, mostly wooden, gilded backdrop of the altar was the decorative focus of the church interior. It has niches flanked with twisted pilasters (ie. a pillar merged into a wall) topped with Corinthian foliage capitals.

The niches, usually in three tiers, had curved arches and were styled as decorated shells, as seen in the Baroque period. The top portions of the retablos are curved similar to the facade outside.

The façade was divided into various levels, with salient entablatures (raised horizontal projections) running across the structure from side to side, whose decoration was enhanced by the use of niches and bas-relief of angels, animals and floral elements, all of which held the centerpiece, the doorway, in symmetry.

The bottom part of the wood-carved altar at the Cathedral of Bom Jesu in Old Goa.

Church furniture and sacred artifacts

Church furniture served various purposes and met basic needs. They were chairs, armchairs, benches, tables, stools, cupboards, chests, tabernacles, lecterns, highly decorated candlesticks and confessionals.

The armchairs with a high back inlaid with gilt decoration, from where the clergy used to address the congregation, are veritable pieces of art. Then there were the chests for keeping vestments, some with fine inlay work, or intarsia art (mosaics worked in wood) with different types of wood, ivory, bone, metal or mother of pearl. All these constituted beautiful pieces.

Masterpieces of Christian sculpture in ivory, wood or clay, depicting the images of crucifixion and the Virgin Mary under different invocations, patron saints and angels, were fashioned to great perfection, usually by local artists.

For religious ceremonies, we have crosses, plates, chalices, pyxes, ciboria, patens, crosiers, reliquaries, monstrances, goblets, communion cups, crowns, frames, staffs, thuribles and candlesticks made of gold, silver or alloy. Many items are enriched with semi-precious stones. Giant monstrances in silver in the form of a pelican (the bird that feeds its young with its own flesh, seen as a symbol of Christ). 

Portuguese religious art did not dominate Indian Christianity forever. Towards the end of the 18th century, the Jesuit Society was suppressed and the many Jesuit institutions passed into the hands of local dioceses.

Colonized imagination

The Portuguese also lost their political power to the British everywhere in the country, except for Goa. And the British Protestants had a different concept of religious art, far removed from the exuberance of Baroque celebration.

The imagination of Indian Christians was colonized by a European model of Jesus, Mary and the saints, for the Church in which they lived was a western implant.

But Indian Christians, except perhaps for some parts of Kerala, largely did not object, for their forebears had escaped oppression and subjugation from a caste-ridden Indian society, and Indian Christians had little to aspire to from within such a society.

It was only the nationalist independence movement and its inclusive embrace which awakened some Christians to their local Indian heritage — and even then, this was not widespread.

The sociopolitical background helps us to understand why there was not much support from the local Christian community when Christian artists like the Goan Angelo da Fonseca or the north Indian Frank Wesley attempted re-imagining Christian themes according to indigenous patterns. 

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

You can read the first part here: When Emperor Akbar encouraged Christian art

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