Christian Art in Goa
BY Percival Noronha

When various religious orders landed in Goa, after the Portuguese occupation, they erected noble and expensive churches, chapels, monasteries, convents and colleges. Many of these are reckoned as outstanding examples of Christian architecture. Most of the churches in Goa exhibit tiered frontispiece and are framed with columns and pilasters, generally presenting single or a combination of classic orders of architecture.

While constructional activity of large religious buildings was going unabated, a zealous campaign for the evangelization was being relentlessly pursued. The local population with their artistically receptive mind, proved themselves capable of easily assimilating the symbols of Western Christian civilization with which they came in contact for the first time. In little more than a century, the newly formed society adopted also Christian art and taste in architectural traits of their dwellings, changing the style according to their means and by imitating the designs they had opportunity of seeing both in Goa and abroad. Their interiors were so designed to always yield room to a family “oratory’’ – many of them of great artistic value – or sometimes to a chapel located in a most accessible place in the house. Thus, there arose, a new cultural graft in the eastern lands, dictated by the spread of the Christian faith not without the demands of religious rigorism, both material and spiritual.

Speaking of material demands of the interiors of those majestic abodes of the Christian community in Goa, for instance, furniture always served various purposes and met the basic needs of the church. The vast range includes chairs, benches, tables, stools, tabourets, cupboards, chests, tabernacles, lecterns, highly decorated candlesticks, confessionals etc. These are seen in different styles with accentuated Portuguese influence from Gothic to Renaissance, Baroque to Neo-classic, while regence, rococo and other influences are also found among the specimens. The armchairs of high backrest with gilt decoration from where the ministers of the church used to address the congregating [old Liturgy], are veritable pieces of art. These chairs are exhibited in almost all churches of Goa and are objects of curiosity among visitors. Chests for keeping vestments, some with fine inlay work [marquetry] or of intarsia art with different type of wood, ivory, bone, metal or mother-of-pearl, also constitute pieces of attraction to the visitors.

With the advent of Christianity in Goa, masterpieces of Christian sculptures in ivory, wood and clay, depicting images of Christ on the Cross of Virgin Mary under different invocations and of patron saints an angels eta., were introduced in Goa by the members of religious orders. Such images were soon being made by local artists. Many of the objects in this category in particular of ivory, are of surprising richness and perfection. Also, for the magnificent religious ceremonies of the Church, a large collection of crosses, plates, chalices, pyxes, ciboria, patens, crosiers, reliquaries, monstrances, ostensories, goblets, communion cups, salcers, crowns, frames, staffs, thuribles, candlesticks etc. are being used. These were of gold, silver or of some alloy. Many of these items are enriched with semi-precious stones also. Renaissance giant monstrance in silver in the form of a pelican from the monastery of St. Monica (Old Goa) as well as the silver tomb of St. Francis Xavier beautifully set in tiers with a combination of a series of Corinthians mini-colonnades, are good examples of Christian art in Goa.

In the field of ornamental needlework, many rich samples vestments made of damask silk or velvet are found in almost every church. Gold thread embroideries were used lavishly in keeping with the Christian tradition. Such art, rose to a high standard in the convents of the various religious orders in Goa in the XVII and XVIII centuries, particularly in the Convent of St. Monica in Old Goa. In fact, embroidery became a conventual art producing liturgical vestments like chasubles, stoles, maniples etc. Also, the old mass manuals, missals, graduals, Bible versions in different sizes and shapes, all bound in parchment, silk or leather with embossed letterings in gold, constitute a rich testimony of the Christian art.

Equally interesting are the several types of church candlesticks of varied shapes and sizes, in wood and metal, as well as the traditional oil wick lamps, which in the past, had become the only illuminants in the churches. Later, in the XVII and XVIII centuries, the wall esconces made in combination with brass or copper and glass or crystal and the imposing crystals lustre (chandelier) of different sizes and styles were both functional and decorative. Many rich illuminant devices, are still in use in the churches.

The story of artistic development of Christian art in Goa, particularly in the domain of fine arts, would be left incomplete if no reference is made to the efforts of religious orders in introducing the painting for the instruction and edification of the neo-converts on the great mysteries of faith and the passages of the Bible. From the painting preserved to date, there are superb examples of traditional Adoration of the Magi, Baptism of Christ, His entry into Jerusalem, His Passion etc. Again, the ‘portraits’ of the virgin under different invocations, and that of the life of saints are part of the great selection of classic paintings on canvas or on wooden panels in several churches of Goa, particularly in the gallery of St. Francis di Assis in the Old City.

And so, there they are, thousands of objects in Goa of Christian art – distinctive and lively. It is obvious that a greater part of this rich repository was wrought in Goa by receptive local artists who were encouraged to adapt their traditional crafts to conform to the Christian style. Consciously or unconsciously, each artist followed the Indian mind by shaping pieces of European models with Oriental decorations. Thus, we see the emergence of a new current in the style, known the world over as Indo-Portuguese style, which was established by unknown Indian artists with great ingenuity, originality and splendor.

Now, it is good for us with our own inevitable prejudices to see how the members of various religious orders and our ancestors too, who, imbued with the Christian zeal and dedication, collected a great array of immediate requirements for the glory of the Church and at the places of worship in their homes. The devastations of time, however, and several vicissitudes of history, aided by the indifference of men, swept away many valuables of the rich collection. Yet, precious pieces of Christian art are still filling the age old churches, convents, chapels and seminaries as well as Christian homes in Goa.

1st published in the Museum of Christian Art Book, 1994