The cult of relics involving the veneration of saints was widespread in the Catholic world, especially in during the Counter-Reformation following the Council of Trent (1545-63), where it was much emphasized. Reliquary coffers from this period abound, and were often placed in the niches of altar retables. As these coffers reveal, it is often in the silverwork, for which the Indian silversmith was justly famed at European, especially Portuguese courts, that Indo-Portuguese art finds its high point.
The coffers are modelled on leather-covered wooden caskets, very common in Portuguese houses for storing money, jewels, documents and other items of value. Here, as befitting relics, as one of this pair shows, they were clad in scarlet-coloured velvet, perhaps to recall Christ’s Passion and sacrifice.
Since such chests were used to both secure and transport high-value goods, they had latches with specific shapes; often, they were lizard-shaped or reptilian in some manner to discourage theft by evoking a sense of overhanging danger. In this case, the latches are like the caparisoned head and trunk of an elephant, symbolic of India from early 16th century Europe, and could display a Malabar influence. There are also two well-proportioned handles, as would have existed on regular transport chests, topped here with applied silver decoration in relief. Similar silver decoration in the form of star-shaped, five-petalled flowers, possibly Carissa carandas, a wildflower from the hills of Goa, is found scattered over the front and on the lid. The triangular silver-bound corners reinforcing the joints, and the top part of the latch, are decorated in beautiful relief with stylized lotus blooms and foliage.
Museum of Christian Art, Convent of Santa Monica, Goa, India, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 2011.