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Unique Icons From Goa

There are two dominant views about the spread of Christianity in Goa. One view is that the evangelists—a wide assortment of them in terms of their nationalities and religious affiliations—achieved their results because they were severe. The other view, a trifle simplistic, is that the evangelists were catalysts of a great and continuing miracle.

Pietro Della Valle who visited Goa around 1624, the year when St. Francis Xavier who canonized, describes scenes in his memoirs which were strange in his view. “There is no country in the world where so many processions are held as in Goa.” Obviously, the Indian yatras, loud and colourful, and therefore an effective means to attract large crowds had been inducted into the evangelists’ methodology. Della Valle mentions that in order to illustrate points made during the sermons there were displays of images which were mobile and flexible.

Another European traveller, an unlikely purist, Gabriel Dellon, had seen in Old Goa a sick Portuguese youth who had an ivory image of the Virgin in his bed “which he reverenced much and often kissed and addressed himself to it.”

Dellon was a French physician who, while in Goa around 1670, had the temerity to seduce the Viceroy’s concubine. As a result, he was tried by the Holy tribunal of the Faith, as the Inquisition was known, and his account of his ordeals—Relation de I’ Inquisition de Goa—is arguably the best first person account of the tortures inflicted on those tried by the Inquisition.

A time came, in the 16th century, when Rome objected to the idolatrous practices followed in Goa, such as devotional around cribs depicting the mysteries of nativity. But the Goan hierarchy urged for tolerance: “it is only for the people of the land and it is set up on their account.” The point was well taken by Rome.

The Indian elements of Goan iconography and other Christian works of art, have been identified over the years: Indian fauna (like Madonna on crocodile) and floral elements (like Madonna holding a flower) a tendency to stylize, introduction of Indian celestial symbols (like moon phases), oval faces and a certain partisanship for colours like bright red, blue and green.

Initially, Indian techniques and styles were adversely criticized by the Portuguese clergy. “Feyto por mao de pymtores da terra e os olios e tymtas nao muy perfeitos”—is a description found in Fr. Silva Rego’s monumental ‘Documentacao’ (Vol. IV, pp. 128-9). The message was loud and clear: “made by the hands of local painters and the oils and colours which are not quite perfect.” As time wore on, so did the resistance to the native artists. A document dated 14 November 1559, listed in Silva Rego’s ‘Documentacao’ (Vol. VII p. 335) mentions um mocadao de pintores—a foreman of painters (which suggests that he had a studio with several apprentices) had been under much pressure of past Governors and Viceroys to convert himself to Christianity. When stucco surfaces became the fashion in religious architecture, the Portuguese seem to have taken a group of masons, originally from Sawantwadi, and their families to the island of Juvem (since renamed Santo Estevao) near Old Goa and converted them to Christianity.

The paintings gifted by the Jesuits to Akbar, and later Jehangir, and which seem to have had some influence on Mughal art, were done mainly by Goan artists serving under Portuguese masters. Interestingly, a painting of the time, a portrait of Viceroy Dom Joao de Castro, the stern and intolerant bigot who introduced the Inquisition in Goa, has a noticeable influence of Mughal art.

Indian influence in ‘religious art’—which is acknowledged by contemporary Portuguese art critics and historians, like Prof. Reynaldo dos Santos and Carlos de Azevedo as ‘elements of pagan culture’—is to be found at its best in the silver casket of St. Francis Xavier which was exclusively done by Goan jewellers.

There are other Christian iconographic masterpieces made in Goa which evidence Indian influence, like the 18th century image of Immaculate Conception, in wood, published by Kalpana S. Desai and belonging to the Bombay based Heras Institute of Indian History. In that interesting sculpture, the Virgin with folded hands stands on the moon supported by a makara (crocodile_. Kalpana Desai also sees a parallel in the concept of Goan icons depicting Virgin Mary in her invocation as ‘protector of navigators’ (a fact not mentioned by Kalpana Desai is that the Virgin Mary in this particular ‘invocation’ is known as Nossa Senhora de Boa Viagem i.e. Our Lady of Good Voyage) and the Buddhist Tara which is considered as a saviour of navigators.

Obviously, the Portuguese were not insensitive to Indian art forms and they incorporated them with no qualms in their architecture and sculpture. In a parallel development, the Hindus of Goa adopted graffito techniques in temples built after the arrival of the Portuguese or those rebuilt at new sites in the interior, after the destruction of their primal temples—which were generally situated on the littoral—in the first blast of the Portuguese domination. Quite a few Hindu temples in Goa also have discernable Muslim influences. Interestingly, the graffito techniques were later followed in several areas of Konkan, which had once formed, along with Goa, the mythic province of Aparanta—Aronda in Sindudhurg, Ankola, Shadasivgad, Sirsi in Karnataka, to mention a few sites.

Goan icons are generally made of wood and ivory. On the other hand clay, porcelain, terracotta, marble and jade icons found in several public and private oratories, churches and chapels, were all imported. The Mother and Child recurring theme in biblical episodes and incidents easily inspired local craftsmen who were familiar with the myths and legends of Hinduism, where Mother and Child themes also recur. The multiplicity of places of worship, and along with it, the diversity of saints venerated and propitiated by the devotees were, again, influenced by their primal Hindu concepts and notions. Devotees of the 10 avatars of Vishnu, on their conversion to Christianity, accepted without any reservations the various ‘invocations’—avatars in a way—of ‘Mary Mother of God’. And we find in Goa Nossas Senhoras (Our Ladies) all kinds of imaginable human situations and predicaments—de Bom Viagem (for safe travel) de Piedade (of piety), das Angustias (of anguish) and naturally enough, do Bom Parto, Our Lady in whose hands every Goan mother-to-be entrusts the safe delivery (that is what Bom Parto means in Portuguese) of her child.

The craftsmen, generally charis or chitrakars by caste, saw in the penitents and hermits of Hinduism excellent models—emaciated and angular faces, long hair and shaggy beards, pale veinal hands and feet—for their representations of Christ. Lakshmi, Parvati and a dozen other Hindu goddesses offered them a wide range of facial expressions to choose from when depicting Mary in her various ‘invocations’. If Renaissance artists could get their wives and mistresses to pose for their paintings and sculptures of the Madonna, why would not the chairs and chitrakars of Goa draw inspiration from the Hindu pantheon?

But Goan iconography seems to be on the verge of becoming yet one more of those good stories fated to end on a sad note. The craftsmen have all but disappeared—there is only one recognized craftsman left: Vaman Zo, at Chimbel, an obscure village near Panaji. And there is no demand for bonafide devotees. The market is flooded with plastic moulds, which may not be as artistic as wood and ivory icons, but are definitely cheaper, and from a purely religious point of view, perhaps as effective. More: no one steals plastic icons, whereas wood and ivory icons have been, and are being, stolen almost every week, from churches, chapels, wayside sanctuaries and private homes; and sold, through antiquarians with few or no scruples, to all manner of compulsive collectors.

A priceless statue of St. Francis Xavier presently adorns the bar of a multi-millionaire American socialite. What a come down for a Saint who had been initiated in his missionary career with these words from his spiritual guru: “what doth it profit a man to win the whole world and lose his soul?” What indeed?!!

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