The cult of relics encouraged people to go on pilgrimage to seek saints’ intercession or as thanksgiving. This small reliquary coffer, once held at the St. Paul’s College (no longer standing) in Old Goa, contains a small piece of St. Francis Xavier’s surplice. An exquisite Mughal-style silver casket, it was reimagined in religious terms by the Indian silversmith.
Gracefully curving vegetal motifs arranged to appear like embroidered fabric decorate the casket’s top and front in silver chasing. On top is a circular handle, and in front are two latches shaped like elephant trunks. On the coffer’s sides, the artist represents in relief two miracles from the saint’s life: one, the raising of a dead man, possibly an Eastern ruler, and another alluding to St. Francis’s driving away demons plaguing the Vicar of Malacca at his death bed.
At the back is to be found the most delicate pierced silverwork through which faded scarlet fabric (velvet?) is visible; we learn here, in Latin, of the coffer’s contents. Two narrow scroll-like plaques flank a central medallion containing the trigram of Christ, a cross and nails: the right one reads ‘SOBREPELIS’ (surplice), and the left ‘D. S. FRANCISC°XAV’. Below the plaques, on either side of the medallion, are two hovering calm-faced angels. An intricate border of quatrefoils held within a pearl motif, mostly preserved, is found all around.
The back shows damage from visible repairs done in the past, with the hinges not having been re-attached in a symmetrical manner. It could reflect the coffer’s history of having been moved from place to place, perhaps in haste and under duress.
1. Japan, ‘St Francis Xavier – His Life and Times,’ 1999.
2. Brussels, ‘Passage to Asia – Twenty-five Centuries of Cultural Exchange between Asia and Europe,’ 2010.
3. Australia, ‘Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices,’ June 2015–January 2016.
Exhibition Catalogue, ‘St Francis Xavier – His Life and Times,’ Japan, 1999.
Exhibition Catalogue, ‘Passage to Asia – Twenty-five Centuries of Cultural Exchange between Asia and Europe,’ Brussels, 2010.
Exhibition Catalogue, ‘Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices,’ Australia, June 2015–January 2016.
Museum of Christian Art, Convent of Santa Monica, Goa, India, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 2011.