Icons of Faith

An exhibition on the Indo-Portuguese Christian Art from the CSMVS collections.

By Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Adoration of the MaggiChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Regardless of having a long history of the church in her land, it is surprising to find the relative scarcity of Christian art in India. It is in Estado da India; the territories under Portuguese rule viz., Goa, Diu, Daman and Bassein-Salsette that the only broad form of Christian art in India developed.

Adoration of the MaggiChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

The Portuguese rule brought in Western Catholic missionaries to India creating a community of native Christians who blended in aspects of their previous socio-religious culture into their new religion.

Priests encouraged this to make the new Christians comfortable into the new religion, despite oppositions from Rome and Portugal. This led to interesting amalgamations – termed as Indo-Portuguese not only in cultural milieu but also the images used in worship; home and churches.

Triptych depicting the Nativity of JesusChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Initially, images brought from Europe met the religious requirements of the Portuguese and native Christian communities.  However, the growing demand for images gave impetus to local artists to create images of Christ, Mary, and the saints. 

Catholic Church as an institution always adapted and absorbed the local flavour for their art and architecture. Yet, the concept and iconography always remained European. 

After the 17th century CE, the Indian artist had become fairly conversant with the Christian themes and European style and catered to the growing requirements of the Christian community. 

Crucifix (19 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Earlier these images were fashioned after their European counterparts with respect to style and iconography. However, gradually the images noticeably took on an Indian appearance revealing the hand of the Indian artisan. These could be seen in their facial appearances and expressions.  

Crucified Christ (17 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

This type of “Indianness” was tacitly allowed in their practices in the 16th and later centuries, because the clergy wanted the native Christians to feel at home in their new religion. Roman criticism had no effect on the people and or the clergy. 

Our Lady (18 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Most of the ivory statues were meant for the house shrines of the Portuguese and local people and for their private devotion. A large export market also developed for these images which were shipped to Portugal, Latin America as well as Spain and Italy. 

There was also a large production of quickly carved ivory statutes, mostly Mary, which were given away by the clergy as prizes in competitions about the Christian belief. 

Our Lady of the Rosary (19 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

CSMVS has a significant number of exhibits that highlight this unique story of Indo- Portuguese Christian Art. This art encompasses statues; in wood and ivory which were used in Churches and homes in Portuguese territories, not only India but also Latin America, Spain and Italy.

Infant Jesus (19 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

At the time of introduction of Christianity in India, people were already familiar with the worship of the child-god Balakrishna. The worship of Krishna involved deep personal emotional attachment. It was easy to transfer these motherly emotions to Baby Christ. 

Small ivory statues of Infant Jesus were created based on the iconography of Balakrishna.  

Infant Jesus (19 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Such images of reclining Jesus usually formed a part of bride’s dowry and were associated with seeking blessings of God for progeny. These also may have been used in the Nativity tableaus set up during Christmas.

Adornments have been provided by painting the bracelets and anklets on the wrists and ankles of the Baby Christ, ornaments which are an almost indispensable part of the images of Baby Krishna. 

Child Jesus on globe (19 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Images of Child Jesus in Indo-Portuguese art seem to be an amalgamation of styles with the figure being represented in the Western style but with decoration of Indian inspiration. 

The Child Jesus standing on a sphere is one of the most common images found on the altars of Goa. They were very much in vogue in the 17th century CE, and were made in large numbers to be venerated in both churches and cloisters. 

Copied from a European model; the Indian features are evident in the short, well defined locks and his chubby face. 

Child Jesus as Good Shepherd (Late 16 & 17 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

This is an original iconography developed in Portuguese India.
Jesus is shown here as a child seated in meditation, dressed in thick coat with curly hair. The lamb on his shoulder identifies him as the Good Shepherd. 

Jesus’ eyes are closed in meditation suggesting he is thinking of his death. His pose is derived from the meditative pose of Buddha. Interestingly, CSMVS has an incomplete image. 

Child Jesus as Good Shepherd (Late 16 & 17 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

This image is part of what is called The Good Shepherd Rockery which typically shows Child Jesus sitting atop a tiered landscape with sheep flocking to drink from a fountain in the middle and Mary Magdalene shown meditating the scriptures inside a cave in the bottom.

While the fountain symbolises the biblical message of life giving water i.e. Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene is used to illuminate the role of a believer practising devotion and repentance. 

Developed into an elaborate and complex iconographic form, this image probably to illuminate the biblical concept of the Good Shepherd for the newly converts by the missionaries.

Flogging of Jesus (18 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Figures of Christ represented in scenes from the Passion (events leading to the death of Jesus) are an essential part of Christian iconography. In Indo-Portuguese churches, statues generally wooden; representing the various stages of Passos or Passion of Christ became quite popular after the end of 16th century CE. 

These are flexible statues, used during the narration of the ‘Passion of Christ’ in the season of Lent (the period in the Catholic liturgical calendar marking 40 days between Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday). 

Crucified Christ (17 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Crucifixes became, from 17th century CE onwards, an essential presence on Christian altars, especially in India. Baroque influence can be seen in the treatment of the loin-cloths, which became highly elaborate, suspended by a thick cord which barely brings the two ends of the material together. 

Mary with child Christ (18 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Veneration of Mary, the Mother of Jesus became increasingly prevalent in the Christian world during the late Middle Ages with a multiplicity of images later emerging. Catholic countries of Europe and especially Portugal practised deep regard for Mary. 

Mother and Child Christ (17 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Religious orders that 1st settled in the Portuguese territories in India – the Franciscans, Dominicans and later, Jesuits – promoted the veneration of Mary. The Goans also developed a special regard for Mary. 

She is very popular in her form of holding child Jesus in her hand. She is believed to have saved the people of Goa from many calamities at different times.   

Mary on throne with child Jesus (17 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

The Council of Trent (1545–63) of the Catholic Church  gave the mandate for veneration of the Virgin Mary; therefore leading to a demand for large number of Mary statues in Europe and Portuguese India. 

Countless ivory images of Mary arrived in Lisbon, the European entry port for products from the Orient; created in the Portuguese territories, usually based on 17th century European models copied from prints.   

Immaculate Conception of Mary (19 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

The Portuguese King Joao IV declared the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception as the benefactress of the Kingdom from 1640 CE; leading to unrestrained devotion to Our Lady of the Conception throughout Portuguese territories.

That gave rise to the fabrication of a large number of wooden and ivory images like this one. The work of local artists is often given away by the Indian features, the decoration of tunic and clock, the style of their plinths. Floral decorations of the plinths are a very Indo-Portuguese feature.

St. Anne and Virgin Mary (19 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Another quite common image is St. Anne with Child  Mary. St. Anne, the mother of Mary is depicted with Mary who reads a book sitting on an elaborate throne and above her is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. 

St. Francis Xavier (17 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Veneration of saints - individuals recognised as especially virtuous and holy - has been of critical importance in Christian worship. A great deal of Christian art features representations of saints. 

They are usually depicted with one or more attributes that are characteristic to the saint. Churches and even villages, towns, cities are often dedicated to one or more saints. Images of saints can be found in Catholic churches and homes throughout the world. 

St. Francis Xavier (19 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

St. Francis Xavier (1506-52 CE) reached Goa in 1542, and began adapting Indian ways for teaching catechism. In 1548 he is said to have issued instructions that children should be taught the lives of Christ and the saints through stories and enactments; in similar manner as the Hindu Puranas so that they could be inspired by the deeds of the saints.

After his death in China, his body was brought back to Goa and placed in the Basilica of Bom Jesus; where it still remains. The saint is depicted holding a ball of fire signifying his ardent zeal to spread knowledge about Christianity. He is called the Apostle of the Indies, on account of his successful missions in India, Japan and China. 

Probably St. Mary Magdalene (Late 16 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

St. Mary Magdalene was extremely important for the new Christians who were educated to see themselves following the example of the repentant saint. As she was saved, the new Christians will also be saved by Jesus Christ. 

St. Peter (18 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

St. Peter, the apostle (martyred in 64 CE) became the leader of the apostles (disciples of Jesus). Famous for his healing powers. He is usually depicted with a tonsure or a bald patch and with dark beard. The Keys of Heaven hang from his waist while he holds a Bible in his hand.

St. Nicholas of Tolentino (19 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

St. Nicholas of Tolentino (1245 -1305 CE) was an Augustinian preacher, and is invoked as a protector against plague. He is depicted as a young man wearing the Augustinian dark habit, sports a monastic tonsure and seems to hold a book, which could be his order's. 

St. Nicholas has a large star shining on his chest – his true personal attribute. 

St. Roch (18 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

St. Roch  (c. 1295–1327) has been evoked since the 14th century against the plague, leprosy and cholera that periodically raged throughout Portugal, particularly in Lisbon, where his cult gained a large following. From that city the devotion spread to the overseas territories under Portuguese jurisdiction. He is usually depicted as a pilgrim with a hat at the back of his head. 

St. John the Baptist (18 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

St. John the Baptist (1st century CE) is depicted as a desert hermit as mentioned in the Bible. He is portrayed with a book; symbolising the Scriptures and a lamb; symbolising Jesus.

The sculptor has taken few artistic liberties in the depiction of the beast-skin that is shown as a full garment with wide sleeves and of his long, tidy hair and not adopting the unkempt look more in line with the saint's life.

St. Sebastian (18 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Born in the 3rd century CE in Gaul (Narbonne in present France), St. Sebastian was persecuted during the reign of Emperor Diocletian by being shot with arrows. St. Sebastian was invoked against the plague since the middle ages. 

Many chapels, requiring numerous images showing his martyrdom were raised in his honour in Portuguese territories.

St. Anthony holding the child Christ (18 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

St. Anthony of Padua is depicted wearing a brown habit of his Franciscan order along with the collar that extends back to form the hood and the long cord belt with its three knots symbolising chastity, poverty and obedience to the rule hanging down at the side.

Besides this, he is represented with a closed book held in his left hand, upon which he supports the Child seated with hand raised in blessing. 

Angels (19th century CE )Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Depiction of angels inside churches symbolise their exaltation of God in heaven. In the form of decorative elements in gilded wood, in olden days they were used to embellish altars or as candle or incense holders. 

Angels (19th century CE )Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Difference can be seen between the two angels. The smaller set wearing a tunic and having round, full faces suggest Indian craftsmen’s hand as compared to the larger set which denote more European features. 

Sacred heart of Jesus (20 Century CE)Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Around late 18th – early 19th centuries, the Indo-Portuguese images made by local artists found a decline in demand. Christian homes and institutions favoured pictures of the West and were considered to be the more authentic Christian form. 

Currently, apart from few Indo-Portuguese churches and private homes in the former Portuguese territories, images such as these shown here are only found in museums abroad. 

Credits: Story


CSMVS Team 
Curated by - Divya Pawathinal (Assistant Curator, Non-Indian Antiquities)
Assisted by - Urvashi Jhangiani (Digital Media Manager) & Samiksha Puri

The exhibits in this exhibition was conserved under the CSMVS-Citi ConservArte Initiative

Exhibition Team - Aparna Bhogal, Smita Parte, Siddharth Waingankar, Shannan Castelino, Satata Mondal 
Photography Team - Onkar Abhyankar, Sneha Mestry

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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