A Shrine To Xavier

2009, the Museu de São Roque received the donation of the St. Francis Xavier
reliquary, a late 17th-century gold casket originating from Goa. Because of its
artistic, historical and spiritual value, the casket has become one of the
museum's most emblematic pieces, enriching its collection of reliquaries and greatly
enhancing the value of its oriental art section.

Church of Sao Roque - view of the Main AltarMuseu de São Roque

The church of São Roque in Lisbon was the headquarters of the Society of Jesus in Portugal and its vast overseas empire. It was from here that the Jesuit missionaries set sail for India, China, Japan and Brazil.

Reliquary ark of Saint John de Brito (1694 - 1698) by Henrich MannlichMuseu de São Roque

Here, we can find one of Europe’s most important reliquary shrines, resulting partly from Dom João de Borja’s donation (1586) and later enriched with the relics of the Jesuit missionaries martyred in the Far East.

Cycle Paintings IIMuseu de São Roque

In 1619, a cycle of 20 paintings was created for the sacristy of this church, all of them dedicated to the life of St. Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the East, and depicting various episodes that took place in India.

By James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

The saint converted many communities in India, Malaysia and Japan to Christianity. He continued to be widely worshipped in these regions and was considered an example for the young Jesuit missionaries who travelled to these places.

Sao Roque Museum, Asian Art Room (2020) by Audiovisual and Multimedia Center - Communication and Marketing Department / Santa Casa da Misericórdia de LisboaMuseu de São Roque

In 1768, the former Professed House of the Society of Jesus in Lisbon was given to the Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Lisbon, which, in 1905, founded the Museu de São Roque there. Among other exhibits, it displays works of art linked to the Jesuits’ presence in Asia.

Reliquary-casket of Saint Francis Xavier (ca.1686 - 1690) by UnknownMuseu de São Roque

The Casket

in Goa and based on a composition from classical architecture, the
reliquary-casket was commissioned by Dom Rodrigo da Costa, the governor of the Portuguese
State of India, probably being made after the Maratha Sambhaji’s armies had
attacked Goa. The relics of saints were believed to protect
the cities where they were worshipped and the families who owned them. The
casket was  handed down as an heirloom through
the families of the Costas (1686-1708), Almeidas (1708-1779) and Castros
(1779-2009), until it was donated to the Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Lisbon
by Dona Teresa Maria Mendia de Castro (New Goa). 

The casket is a reproduction of a hexagonal western architectural structure, a model that was based on Sebastiano Serlio’s treatises and widely used in military architecture, where it performed a defensive function.

Pilasters and pyramid-shaped pinnacles are western decorative elements that were widely used in 17th-century Portuguese architecture.

Like the saint's tomb in Goa, the faces of the casket have plaques that could be removed in order to exhibit the relics at public ceremonies determined by its owner.

These plaques are decorated with an intricate pattern of diagonal motifs, in which various animals can be seen scattered amid vegetal elements.

Two-headed eagles


Cherubs from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

"Nagas", a Hindu mythological element or a local adaptation of the European mermaids.

Architectonic Reliquary of Saint Donatus Martyr (1300)Museu de São Roque

The origins

The cult of relics was a widespread practice in medieval Europe, giving rise to long and devout pilgrimages and the building of chapels. Their worship was reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1563), despite the opposition of Protestants. Many reliquaries were designed to be used at large-scale religious events, where the congregation could worship the relics that they contained at mass gatherings without endangering their integrity. 

The design

The reliquary was designed in the form of a hexagonal temple. This model was a popular feature of 17th and 18th-century architecture in Portugal and Brazil, being used for the building of chapels on the outskirts of urban centres dedicated to the saints who protected the local communities. These chapels were regarded as defensive fortresses founded on the people’s faith, which protected them against invaders, infidels and diseases. This was why they were located at the entrances and exits of towns and cities. 

pendant~reliquary (1550/1600)British Museum

The hexagonal structure was borrowed from architecture and its form was used to create numerous objects, such as oratories, reliquaries and amulets, that were intended to protect the owners of these pieces, their families or homes.

Saint Francis Xavier preaching in Goa (1610) by André ReinosoMuseu de São Roque

The taste

As an artistic object, the reliquary-casket of St. Francis Xavier demonstrates the aesthetic syncretism developed between the various cultures, through the inclusion of animals and floral motifs that were also found in other art works, ranging from porcelain articles to glazed tiles and the greatly appreciated coverlets from India. This exoticism was highly valued in Europe, serving as a manifestation of the wealth and experience gained through contact with other cultures, namely those that were respected for their technological and cultural evolution, such as the Chinese and Indian traditions. 

Reliquary box of Saint Francis Xavier, detail of gazelle (1686) by AnonymousMuseu de São Roque

The meticulous decorative patterns, coupled with the use of noble materials, meant that these objects were highly valued in western culture, serving as symbols of a presence in the Far East and, therefore, as testimonies of an honourable and prosperous family past.

Pot (Last quarter of the 16 century) by Unknown authorMNAA National Museum of Ancient Art

The double-headed eagle, with one head turned towards the West and the other towards the East, became a symbol of the encounter between these two worlds, appearing in numerous art works intended for import.

Carpet with trees and animals (2nd half of the 16th century) by Unknown authorMNAA National Museum of Ancient Art

The decorative patterns based on the use of stylised animals interspersed among vegetal motifs, was a very common aesthetic feature in the Middle East and continued to be greatly appreciated in Portugal as a consequence of the country’s Islamic past.

Altar frontal (17th century) by Unknown authorMuseu Nacional de Machado de Castro

Asian aesthetic patterns were replicated in other European arts and workshops, as, for example, in the production of tiles and faience, whose decorative motifs were copied from imported fabrics.

Goa Stone and Gold Case Goa Stone and Gold Case (late 17th–early 18th century)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Goan jewellery was particularly appreciated by the Portuguese. Until the 20th century, several workshops produced artistic objects for export, gaining great fame among the Goan community.

Reliquary box of Saint Francis Xavier, open (1686) by AnonymousMuseu de São Roque

The casket’s content

The casket has an Indian decoration, showing no concern for displaying religious motifs or any of the iconography linked to St. Francis Xavier. It contains different relics, of various types and with different dates, which have been housed in it by successive generations of owners. As is the case with the saint’s great tomb, the side panels are removable, enabling us to see the interior, presupposing its use and presentation at specific religious and festive events. 

Half chasuble of Saint Francis Xavier (1600) by AnonymousMuseu de São Roque

This piece was used to cover St. Francis Xavier’s body and, after its replacement, it was offered to the governor Dom Rodrigo da Costa, who placed it inside the casket.

Set of three reliquaries in the shape of a small temples (1600) by AnonymousMuseu de São Roque

These small gold and crystal pendants were also placed inside the casket. They are rare examples of Goan jewellery from the early 17th century.

Ball of amber (?) from Saint Francis Xavier's coffin (?) (1600) by AnonymousMuseu de São Roque

This amber ball was also placed inside the casket, having originally been used to perfume the coffin. After its removal, it was wrapped in Goan filigree.

Reliquary with fragment of Saint Francis Xavier's little toe in the form of a lady's pocket watch (1600) by AnonymousMuseu de São Roque

This fragment of St. Francis Xavier’s little finger was removed from his body by Dona Isabel de Cron and then, in the mid-18th century, mounted in a reliquary in the shape of a lady's pocket watch.

Saint Francis Solanus baptising Native Americans (1730) by AnonymousMuseu de São Roque


Known as the Apostle of the East, St. Francis Xavier was, for this reason, regularly depicted with the crucifix at various times in his life. The presence of the crucifix symbolised his devotion to Jesus Christ, to whom the Society of Jesus was itself dedicated. The example of St. Francis Xavier was widely praised by those religious orders that devoted their energies to the evangelisation of other cultures. This was the case with the Capuchin Franciscans, who were given the task of converting the people of Spanish America, and St. Francis Solano (1549-1610), who was often depicted in the same way as St. Francis Xavier, baptising the chiefs of the native populations and brandishing the cross. At that time, the repetition of a particular artistic composition was seen as the validation of a laudable example and regarded as a compliment. 

Saint Francis Xavier in ecstasy with a boat evoking his travels (1660) by AnonymousMuseu de São Roque

Because of the numerous voyages that he made without ever being shipwrecked, St. Francis Xavier was also evoked as the protector of seafarers and maritime voyages, considered to be of fundamental importance in an empire based on overseas trade.

Death of Saint Francis Xavier in Shangchuan (1676) by Giovanni Bautista Gaulli, il Baciccio (1639-1709)Museu de São Roque

St. Francis Xavier died in 1552 before he could arrive on the Chinese mainland to begin his missionary work there. In this scene, a shepherd is pointing to the final destination that he never reached.

Reliquary Cross (17th century) by Unknown authorMuseu Nacional de Machado de Castro

The Saint’s Relics

The spread of the cult of St. Francis Xavier depended on the existence of relics through which the worshipper could draw closer to the saint. However, the saint's body remained uncorrupted and intact in its reliquary-tomb at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. Since it was impossible to extract any body parts, contact relics were created, consisting of objects that had been used personally by the saint, such as a crucifix or a shoe. At the same time, objects appeared that had been in direct contact with the saint's body, such as the veils, cushions, wood and lining of his coffin, which, in turn, were periodically replaced and given to his devoted followers. 

Veil from Saint Francis Xavier's coffin (1770) by AnonymousMuseu de São Roque

This veil, which was used to cover the saint’s body, was a typical contact relic that was later distributed among his worshippers.

Reliquary of the wood and lining of the coffin of São Francisco Xavier (2019) by Ana Albuquerque (1964 - )Museu de São Roque

The Museu de São Roque had two contact relics of the saint that were offered to the museum in the mid-20th century. A new contemporary reliquary was created to safeguard these relics, made of glass and silver, materials that were also to be found in the Goan tomb.

Receiving the body of St. Francis Xavier in St. Paul’s Church in Goa (c. 1619) by Collaborator of André ReinosoMuseu de São Roque

The Community. Intangible Heritage

St. Francis Xavier is widely acknowledged to have performed the role of bringing together and unifying the Goan Catholic community, both inside and outside the region. In Goa, worshippers from other religions, such as Hindus and Muslims, recognised and supported the cult of the saint. Known as "Goencho Saib" – the Lord of Goa – his miracles and his body’s incorruptibility were fundamental guarantees of this status. His exemplary life and his work for the Society of Jesus are preserved in the collective memory, in recognition of his missionary activity and the education and assistance that he provided to both Portuguese and Goans alike. 

By James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

The most important event in Goa takes place every ten years, when his body is exhibited at ground level for 44 days, bringing mass pilgrimages of worshippers to Old Goa.

By James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

The saint is worshipped by Christians, but also by Muslims and Hindus who still travel to Goa today, perpetuating the sense of unity and tolerance between the various religions.

By James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

Until 1961, the feast of St. Francis Xavier brought together, in the same celebration, cardinals from the Catholic Church of the East, leaders of the civil and military authorities of the Portuguese State of India, the residents of Goa and the Indian population in general.

Reliquary box of Saint Francis Xavier during the saint's festival held every year, in December, in the church of São Roque (2019) by Audiovisual and Multimedia Center - Communication and Marketing Department / Santa Casa da Misericórdia de LisboaMuseu de São Roque

In Lisbon, at the church of São Roque, the casket of St. Francis Xavier is displayed every year on 3 December, in a festive celebration that attracts hundreds of people, mostly belonging to the Goan community.

Violin (1867) by António Joaquim SanhudoMuseu Nacional da Música

Education and Culture

Goans believe that, through their colleges, the Jesuits who were present in Goa from the 16th to the 18th century, left them with a great aptitude for intellectual activities. They display a remarkable fondness for music, in which purely Western instruments, such as the violin, are combined with the Ghumat, the typical drum of Goa. 

St. Francis Xavier prevents Diogo Gomes’ ship from wrecking (c.1619) by André Reinoso and CollaboratorMuseu de São Roque

Popular legends

In addition to the saint’s official history, recognised by the Roman Catholic Church, many popular stories were transmitted orally, from generation to generation, which were designed to confirm the exceptional nature of the saint and his relics. These legends were clearly influenced by Indian culture, Hindu mythology, magic and the changes taking place in Nature. 

Slapende baby in een wieg (1754 - 1825) by Numan, HermanusRijksmuseum

A man who already had many daughters asked St. Francis Xavier for a boy. When he had another girl, he went to the Basilica of Bom Jesus and said: “Here! keep her!" and abandoned his daughter there. The next day, the news spread that a boy had been found at Bom Jesus.

By Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection

When the Pope asked for St. Francis Xavier´s arm to be sent to Rome, people said: "If you are a saint, then write your name!" And the arm wrote this in such a way that the letters spread across the paper, the table and the floor.

Box-board (early 19th century)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Portuguese lady who was kissing the saint's feet bit off one of his toes. It is said that she used it as a piece in the traditional Indian board game of carroms and that she never lost when playing with it!

Credits: Story

General coordination: Margarida Montenegro
Executive coordination: Teresa Morna
Curator and translator: João Miguel Simões
Acknowledegments: Casa de Goa, Coro Surya, Dr. Filipe Monteiro, Grupo Ekvat

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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