Faith and Fabric: Glimpses of Sacred Textiles from Goa

In the dimly-lit church interiors of Goa, the religious textiles with large embroidered patterns in vibrant colours and glittering silver and gold thread created an impressive aura that reinforced the eminence of the priesthood.

By Museum Of Christian Art, Goa

Pall (chalice cloth) (17th century (?)) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Pall (chalice cloth)

The pall, also known as the chalice cloth, is used as a cover for the communion chalice. It is usually made of cardboard and covered with fabric. 

Pall (chalice cloth) (17th century (?)) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

This 17th century pall, in white silk, is decorated with plant designs and  embroidered in gold thread. A Greek cross with trilobate arms, also gold-embroidered, is the central design. It is hemmed with an embroidered purl galloon.

Chalice and paten (Late 16th century) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Chalice and paten

The pall or chalice cloth was used  as a cover on chalices such as this one from the Museum's collection.

Ceremonial base cloth (19th-20th century) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Ceremonial base cloth

A ceremonial base cloth was placed either on the altar steps or on the altar itself. It was used as a base for the monstrance that contained the  consecrated Host for the adoration of the faithful. Made of richly embroidered silk or velvet, it could be circular, triangular or polygonal.

This ceremonial base cloth is six-sided and made of red velvet. In the centre is the crowned dove of the Holy Spirit, which has well-defined and imposing wings and tail, and is embroidered in relief with gold thread. 

A composition of branches, buds and flowers, also gold-embroidered, surrounds the central motif.     

Altar frontal (Early 18th century) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Altar frontal

Besides their use as part of liturgical objects, textiles such as the altar frontal, were used in church furnishings.

Altar frontals or altar cloths adorned the front of church altars. They were made of various materials, including rich or embroidered fabrics in the same colour as the vestments of the day.

This altar frontal is made of cream-coloured silk. It has oriental floral designs embroidered in polychrome silk. This repetitive design covers the whole piece, including the narrow border.

Basilica decorated for a ceremonyMafra National Palace

Basilica decorated for a ceremony

This photograph by Sérgio de Medeiros is from the Basilica at the Mafra National Palace. The embroidered textile seen on the front of the altar is called the Altar cloth or Altar frontal.

Tabernacle veil (19th century) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Tabernacle veil

A tabernacle veil or curtain is used to cover the tabernacle in a church. The fabric to be used in the tabernacle veil was not specified, nor was its colour, except that it should not be black.  However, the decoration had to be associated with the Eucharist.

Flanking the central composition are two kneeling angels. A symbolic plant motif of grape and wheat ears fills the bottom and sides of the central composition, which is trimmed in gold.

This tabernacle veil has a central gold-embroidered design of a radiating monstrance resting on a red silk and gold embroidered Bible. The Bible has hanging tassels upon which lies the divine lamb, also embroidered in gold.

The side cloths, in which small winged angel heads (seraphim) appear, has a radiating circular gold-embroidered composition. This contains the IHS trigram signifying Christ.

ChasubleMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa


The chasuble is the principal and most visible of the vestments used by the priest at the celebration of Mass. Worn over an alb and a stole, the chasuble could be red, white, green, violet or black according to the liturgical season. 

ChasubleMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

It was originally related to the Roman penula, a cloak worn by lay men and women, as well as by priests, as protection against the cold. 

ChasubleMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

This white silk chasuble is embroidered with palm leaf motifs and stylized red carnations. In the centre, a silk and gold embroidered pineapple is visible. The field is divided by two gold galloons, which also decorate the upper part in a ‘V’ shape. The garment is finished in a gold galloon.

Dalmatic and stole (18th century) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Dalmatic and stole

‘The dalmatic is to the deacon what the chasuble is to the priest: the outer vestment normally worn for the Eucharist.’ The Deacon at Mass, Deacon William T. Ditewig

Dalmatic and stole

The dalmatic and stole are part of a set of vestments usually worn by deacons. Judging by their appearance, they must have been worn for major Church celebrations. It is assumed that they came into the Church’s possession either by purchase or as a gift to mark a special celebration in the liturgical calendar.

This dalmatic and stole are made from expensive European white silk, with an elaborate 18th century pattern embroidered in coloured silk and gold thread, and are further trimmed in yellow silk, which defines their overall shape.

Humeral veil (18th century) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Humeral veil

The humeral or shoulder veil derives its name from the fact that the priest places it over his shoulders and fastens it at the front during certain church ceremonies.

The white silk humeral veil is profusely embroidered in gold and coloured silk thread. In the centre, is a circular radiating composition containing Christ’s trigram and the three nails, surmounted by a cross. Mughal-influenced flowers of different sizes mark an otherwise sparse composition on the veil.

It is edged by a gold band simulating a narrow border. An undulating gold-embroidered plant motif alternating with stylized leaves and flowers is repeated across the border.

Vestments of a Priest

This video by HolyFamilyfdl provides an understanding of the vestments worn by a priest while officiating at various church ceremonies.

Processional banner Confraternity of Saint JosephMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Processional Banner (Confraternity of Saint Joseph)

Processional banners depicted a painted or embroidered image of the Virgin or one of the saints, or a representation of the Blessed Sacrament (chalice and host).

Processional banner Confraternity of Saint JosephMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Processional banners, generally large, are cut from rich fabric in a rectangular design, with the bottom part either ending in points or indented. 

The banner belonged to the Confraternity of Saint Joseph as can be seen from the image of the saint depicted on the front of the banner.

This processional banner hangs from a horizontal staff with knobs at the ends. Galloons and two thick cords ending in large tassels are used for both decoration and as guides to help the member who carried this banner. 

Processional banner Confraternity of Saint JosephMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

The image of Saint Joseph as well as the image of the Virgin Mary on the other side of the banner, are embroidered as relief images, where the face and hands are made of carved ivory. Ivory work in this form is very unique to textiles from Goa.

Processional cross sleeve (Early 20th century) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Processional cross sleeve

A processional cross mounted on a tall pole is carried at the head of most religious processions in the church. The processional cross sleeve is attached below the processional cross.

This processional cross sleeve shows typical couched work made with gold thread known as ‘zardozi’. The designs on the cross sleeve depict Christian themes. 

The gold-embroidered pattern of the lamb ‘Agnus Dei’ (Lamb of God) is seen  resting on a book. Grapes and wheat ear motifs are seen around it. This symbolic representation shows the lamb seated on a book of seven seals.

There are two bands of gold-embroidered grape vines around the top and bottom of this composition. The bottom edge of the cross sleeve ends in tassles.

Infant Jesus Saviour of the World (18th century) by UnknownMuseum Of Christian Art, Goa

Infant Jesus, Saviour of the World

Textiles were also used in garments meant for images of the Virgin Mary, Christ and the Saints. Such garments were usually offered by the devotees in fulfilment of a vow.

This image of the Infant Jesus, Saviour of the World is dressed in a gold-embroidered red velvet gown. The thread-work is of the Mughal zardozi style, with its Tree of Life, vegetal and floral motifs.

Zari Zardozi Process

This video produced by Dastkari Haath Samiti shows the artisan  creating zari embroidery on fine, almost transparent, georgette fabric. 

Credits: Story

The texts are excerpted from the Museum catalogue, 'Museum of Christian Art Convent of Santa Monica Goa. India'.

Image credits: Antonio Cunha under the commission of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

YouTube videos:
 Vestments 101 by  HolyFamilyFdl     
Zari Zardozi process by Dastkari Haat Samiti

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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