You pick up a lot of friends when you live in a place for over 25 years. One of my closest friends here in Goa is called MOCA or, the Museum of Christian Art. Um, can a museum be a friend? Yes! For, like any other close friend, MOCA has imparted knowledge, shared moments of joy and contemplation, a joke, a revelation, a secret, a story.
I served on the MOCA Committee for a few years before I left for Mumbai to look after my ailing mother. I used to look forward to those MOCA meetings! Decisions were taken quickly and without a fuss. Unlike other committees, there was no politics and no bitter quarrels. It was really a pleasure to serve, a space where one felt wanted and welcome. I would take visiting friends to meet this special friend, a literal treasure chest of Christian art. There was always something new to see and something new to learn from the old.
For the past three years, however, the Museum has remained closed for restoration, a Herculean task to put it mildly. The effort put in by the Museum Committee, donors, friends of MOCA, Curator Natasha Fernandes, the conservators from INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage), Goa architect Arminio Rebeiro, our very own mural artists Glen and Nickson from BICO and the MOCA Team is indeed commendable. His Grace, Rev Fr. Felipe Neri Ferrão, the Archbishop of Goa and Daman declared the newly refurbished MOCA open on the 23rd February 2021 in a short and private ceremony.
The new MOCA was opened quietly, without much fanfare on account of the pandemic situation. Of fanfare, there was no need. The exhibits and the way they have been displayed (under the professional guidance of the Caloste Gulbenkian Foundation) are the fanfare. Come to think of it, the earlier version of MOCA now seems like a collection of Christian artifacts, all crammed together to maximize the limited space available to the museum then.
For any museum anywhere, the maximum utilization of available space is a problem. One is always tempted to show the entire collection, to do more. We now learn, with this newly refurbished MOCA that less is more. Beautiful and priceless objects of historic and cultural importance have been placed at respectful distances from one another. The visitor gets a chance to then enjoy every object, observe and admire its details and visualize how and when and where it was once used, enjoyed.
Take the almost life-sized wooden image of Mother Mary holding the Infant (to the right as we go up the stairs to Level 1). “Veneration of the Virgin Mary became increasingly prevalent during the Middle Ages around the Catholic world,”says the very handy Museum Guide. “With the arrival of the Portuguese in India, the veneration of the Virgin also spread here”. For a population that was familiar with the worship of the Mother Goddess and the various versions and forms that followed, it must have come naturally. For craftsmen who were adept at carving her image in wood, it must have come naturally too.
One of my most favourite theories is that to see if an image has been carved by an Indian or Goan craftsman, all you need to do is see how the garments carved have been rendered. The Goan craftsmen always carved garments as if they were in motion. We were used to seeing the dhoti, sari and other flowing garments. Our carvings also displayed the same animation.
In this poly-chromatic image, the Virgin Mary’s feet are bare, her toes are pointed, the garments flowing and her body still in meditative posture. She holds the Infant in her left arm but if you look closely, the Infant is really holding Himself up without any support. He does not have a halo over his head. Instead, part of her veil has been carved to cover his head. Her hair is parted in the centre. Stars dot her white inner robe, “an attribute of the representations of the Virgin Mary as the Morning Star in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin”. Her inner robe, the veil and the Infant’s gown, however, have a gold border rather like an Indian or Goan garment.
You’ve probably guessed by now that MOCA, the Museum of Christian Art is more about art than about religion or any one faith. The exhibits here showcase both European and Goan (also Indian) craftsmanship and most of the articles on display at MOCA can best fall under the wide open umbrella of Indo-Portuguese art objects. Ivory, for example, was once carved in various ways into objects that were in use in oratories in private homes in Goa and in chapels and churches and convents. The ivory carvings were actually richer versions of wooden icons.
The earliest wooden religious objects did arrive from Europe but with new converts clamouring for more and better icons as aids to worship, the demand had to be met by our local craftsmen. With ivory (elephant and hippopotamus teeth) coming in from Africa and Sri Lanka, the possibilities were endless. All the exhibits in ivory at MOCA are outstanding in their craftsmanship and in the stories they tell. Of course, the raw materials itself had its limitations in terms of size and that must have limited the expression.
Take for example the 17th century ivory image of Infant Jesus as the Good Shepherd shown seated on a terraced hillock covered in sheep skin, with the Tree of Life in lush green foliage and the water of life gushing out of a lotus-shaped receptacle, all carved out of one single piece of bone! What amazing talent this single piece of art displays! As if that were not a large enough narrative, there is also an image of Mary Magdalene in the grotto under the meditating Good Shepherd, her penitent image rather cramped into the tiny space.
MOCA is a treasure house of gold, silver, ivory, wood and polychrome. Each and every object on display here is the result of years of care, restoration and thoughtful study. Take a look at the incense boats and cruets, for example. These boats, hand-crafted in silver are actually containers for incense for use in church services. Intricately carved, every detail on these ships are as realistic as if they were ready for setting sail. The stern, with poop deck and railing is flanked by two lanterns and is marked with the letters IHS, the trigram for the name of Jesus. The poop deck is the roof of a cabin below. It is the cabin that holds the incense. At the prow is a leonine figurehead. The plain stand for the boat is probably a replacement. Curator Natasha Fernandes tells us that, “these incense ships were probably commissioned and donated by seafarers as offerings in return for favours granted”.
Cruets are glass or silver (or a combination of both) jugs for wine and water used during mass. Curving plants, shells, acanthus leaves and rich floral decorations were common to 18th century aesthetics. Here, however, at MOCA we go one step further. We have a set of cruets that have nagas or cobras for handles and when you flip open the tops the lids are carved cobra heads. This is clearly the work of Indian craftsmen who could magically turn the most domestic-looking, functional container into a work of art that would last centuries. To go a long way, one had to come a long way.
MOCA too has come a long way. The museum began its life at Rachol, as part of a modest collection in the Rachol Seminary. It was moved to the Convent of Santa Monica in Old Goa in 2001. Its present refurbishment began in 2017 taking its dialogue, its conversation across continents, across countries and cultures, craftsmanship, concepts and design wealth to never-before encountered territories.
The exhibits here are some of the finest examples of syncretic art objects that you will ever see anywhere in the world. Its collections span centuries from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 20th centuries. Furniture, paintings, fabric, garments, sculptures, banners and books all form part of its permanent exhibition. What’s the biggest treat, for me (second to the Black current soda and Coke Float at the Museum Cafe, of course) is that you can even take away a piece from the Museum! The Museum Shop has the most creatively designed jewelry, scarves, key chains and paper angels imaginable. MOCA. This old friend, like any other old friend, has thought of everything.