Even if you aren’t feeling particularly spiritual, the Convent of Santa Monica and Chapel of the Weeping Cross in Old Goa is a good place for contemplation. On overcast afternoons, its white-walled facade contrasts sharply with the dark, craggy ruins of the St Augustine’s Tower across the road. Once inside the erstwhile convent, there’s more to reflect on, albeit through vision rather than prayer.

One of the first things that catches your eye is a very large, very silver pelican. This is no rare Konkan species but an exhibit of the Museum of Christian Art, housed at the four-century-old convent, that affords a glimpse of an enduring aspect of Goa’s cultural heritage. Established in 1994, and located at the convent since 1999, the museum was shut for renovation for the past five years. Its reopening in May 2022 has once again enabled engagement with a rich tradition of Indian practices while posing questions about the curation of religious art and its relationship to art historical categories of the local, national and global.

Conceived by the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman, the museum’s collection was chosen on the basis of a multivolume inventory, and developed with the expertise of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, and INTACH, New Delhi. The latest upgradation, begun in 2017, was supported by the Indian Ministry of Culture. The Museum of Christian Art hosts a collection of almost 200 objects from the 16th century to the 20th century. As a result of the refurbishment, the collection is now organised by type – sculpture, metalwork, embroidered textiles, painting, furniture and books – “to provide a more vibrant idea of the progress of creative processes”, writes Calouste Gulbenkian’s consultant Maria Fernanda Matias in Safeguarding Heritage and Enabling Museological Dialogue, her essay for the museum’s 2022 catalogue. One exhibit is dedicated entirely to objects related to the 16th century missionary St Francis Xavier, whose mortal remains lie in the Basilica of Bom Jesus half a kilometre away. The museological plan extends across two (wheelchair-accessible) storeys, with each display comprising few objects, allowing for considered viewing. On the second floor is a viewing gallery that overlooks the chapel, bringing the museal space into dialogue with the active context of the church and its socio-cultural milieu.

Heterogeneous inspirations

The collection spans more than 450 years of Portuguese Goa, one of the oldest pieces being a late 16th century chalice and paten, and one of the newest ones being a model of St Francis Xavier’s tomb from 1964. Information about the works’ provenance indicates that the majority were installed in churches or the homes of the elite, for worship and ritual. While the paintings and many sculptures probably had a less utilitarian function, many of the other items on view were once used in service and daily religious life, among them cruets, chalices, reliquary coffers, alms boxes, rosaries, votives, ceremonial garments, rosaries and Bibles. Most objects, across types, are examples of artistic syncretism, revealing the confluence of Portuguese aesthetics and Goan craftsmanship, as well as inspiration from the visual vocabulary of different parts of India. Matias notes, “All items reflect the influence of Hindu and Mughal motifs in Christian affairs, in pieces produced by Indian artists…at the service of rulers and prominent local families.”

These heterogeneous inspirations are most apparent in the parallels between Christian deities and Hindu ones. A 19th-century ivory and gold baby Jesus lying in his silver crib bears a strong resemblance to traditional representations of the infant Krishna. A votive object meant to be part of a dowry to bless the union with children, it is adorned with stars whose design is suggestive of the karanda flowers of Goa. A 20th-century sculpture of the Virgin Mary or Nirmala Matha is “practically indistinguishable from a Devi”, Ranjit Hoskote points out in his catalogue essay titled Blessed Among Women ~ The Confluential Histories of the Virgin Mary’s Images in Goa. The Madonna’s crown (mukuta), aureole (prabhavali), lotus pedestal and attire hew close to the sort of depiction that Raja Ravi Varma made popular in the 19th century, notes Jason Keith Fernandes in his contribution to the catalogue titled Finding the Indian in Christian Art.

Based on these and other works, especially sculptures of Jesus and Mary, it appears that ivory – sourced through the Portuguese empire’s extensive trade and colonial infrastructure – was an important and oft-used medium in the Indo-Portuguese tradition. Matias remarks that ivory’s high value was the reason for its use for the representation of the Madonna and Christ. Hoskote writes that, “For its fine colour and glow when polished, it [ivory] came to be regarded as the most desirable medium in which to carve images of Mary.”

That the local artisans producing Christian art were Hindu or converts is an assumption challenged by Fernandes, who asserts that “the early modern Portuguese world was in fact a profoundly Islamic one”, especially in terms of the sensibilities being cultivated among the elite who would commission these works. A 19th-century ivory sculpture of St Anne with her daughter Mary has them wearing scarves that, according to Fernandes, suggest Islamic influence. Besides, the decorative language of the Mughal courts had an impact on Indo-Portuguese artistry, mirroring the Portuguese Jesuit missions’ success in influencing Mughal painters. One 17th-century painting of Mary and Jesus, made probably by a European artist in a style that the curators liken to Italian works of the period, is placed within multiple frames. The width and patterns of the frames, made by Indian artists, are reminiscent of the hashiyas or borders adorning Mughal miniatures. Indeed, one of them is explicitly described as having “Mughal-style mango (Paisley) motifs in gold”.

Over the course of centuries, the Indo-Portuguese style became more delineable, typified by the “naturalist motifs, palm-leaves, tendrils, flowers and pearl decoration”, according to Matias. Tracking the evolution of a particular genre of objects reveals the gradual emergence of a hybrid style. Commenting on the evolution of the Indo-Portuguese crucifixes during this period, Matias observes that the image of Christ on the cross metamorphosed from a stock expression to being rendered in ways that recalled depictions of Hindu ascetics and Mughal princes. The museum’s collection is thus an opportunity to appreciate the intertwining of disparate religious iconographies into a recognisable aesthetic.

Restoration process

Also worth appreciating is the restoration of the objects during the five-year period of upgradation. Merrin Anil, Centre Coordinator at the INTACH Conservation Institute, New Delhi, which spearheaded the restoration, described the process of working on the Museum of Christian Art as “intensive”. Beginning with a preliminary assessment in 2014, the physical conservation proceeded during the monsoon of 2018. It involved setting up a makeshift laboratory at an old-age home near the convent, stocking it with chemicals and equipment and configuring the museum to carry out the bulk of the work on site (dehumidifiers were necessary in Goa’s climate). “We did most of the work at the Museum to avoid transporting artefacts from one location to the other and risk damaging them further,” Anil said. “At the lab, we treated mostly panel paintings and textiles because they required a controlled environment and a suction table to rapidly reabsorb the solvents we applied.”

The entire process, undertaken by a four-member team with periodic visits by conservators, took about one year. Though most objects were in relatively stable condition, a few did present challenges: a wooden 18th-century St Sebastian sculpture had had his arms attacked by termites, a fate that had also befallen a wooden alms box. But more than the harm to the objects, it was the botched attempts at restoration by previous interveners that proved difficult to undo. Anil recalls the team’s consternation: “In the case of the alms box, the hollow made by termites had been filled with cement and overlaid with enamel paint! In fact, in such a case we would carve the wood according to the dimensions of the missing part or use sawdust or wood powder.”

While the Christian art of Goa certainly has a distinct identity, Christianity’s presence and life in India goes back to the early years of the Common Era and extends to many parts of the country. Furthermore, 20th century Goan artists like FN Souza and Angelo da Fonseca have drawn on Christian imagery and Biblical themes, the latter combining them with Hindu and Islamic elements, similar to the constituents of the Museum’s collection, albeit once deemed transgressive. What has been the interpretation of “Christian art” for the purpose of the museum? Curator Natasha Fernandes says their focus has been to conserve examples of a specific Indo-Portuguese idiom that flourished mainly in Goa, donated by churches and families. “While one gets a glimpse of similar artworks across churches of Goa, not all of them are easily accessible to visitors,” she said. “Also, many of these objects have deteriorated and fallen into disuse. The Museum of Christian Art’s purpose has been to take care of them and salvage this particular form.”

Curatorial approach

Before the dawn of the modern age, apart from courts, and often in conjunction with them, religious institutions were a major source of artistic patronage. For this reason, religious art has been a major constituent of canons across civilisations and regions. In a secularised cultural context, what is the curatorial approach to a museum dedicated to religious art? Fernandes refers to the changes wrought by Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) as a cultural turning point, a period that coincides with Goa’s independence from Portuguese rule. “As a result of the Church’s new direction, since the 1960s these highly ornate objects have lost their place,” she said. “The museum’s interest lies in conserving the artistic elements, the blend of Indian and European in the works.”

With these questions about the museum’s interventions in art historical discourse, one returns to its entrance. Inside a glass case, the four-century-old pelican is perched atop a sphere, its scaled neck curved into its hollowed-out heart, in which the consecrated Host is meant to be displayed. Described by the museum’s curatorial team as one of the finest examples of Indo-Portuguese craftsmanship, the 17th-century monstrance was part of the travelling exhibition India and the World: A History in Nine Stories (2017-2018), one leg of which was mounted at the National Museum, New Delhi. The object represents a local tradition resulting from a sustained transcultural interaction (though on unequal terms), which is then included within a body of works deemed representative of a national oeuvre. This move opens up the question of what is the Indo in Indo-Portuguese.

Jason Keith Fernandes cautions against equating Indian with (Brahmanical) Hindu: “The desire to demonstrate Indian influence on Christian art stems from the nervous desire to establish one’s Indian roots”. With this in mind, the conceptual issue of placing colonial-era art designated as religious in relation to a secular national canon is worth attending to. This is particularly relevant when one considers that Goa endured colonisation under a different political and religious regime than almost the rest of India, before becoming part of the union. On the other hand, a global art history orientation would lay emphasis on the convergence of forms and subjects from different parts of the world to study the new cultural meanings generated thereof. The collection at the Museum of Christian Art, as well as its framing of these objects by way of curation and commentary, affords an opportunity to work through some of these historiographical knots.

The walk through the museum comes to an end. One emerges onto the street, across which the fragments of the Augustinian church loom. The odd vehicle glides down the quiet roads of Goa Velha with a hum, the present irrupting into the past. With its relationship to the historical neighbourhood and inventory of public and personal artefacts spanning hundreds of years, the Museum of Christian Art preserves an important part of Goa’s local heritage. At the same time, it sheds light on the ways in which religious cultural material could be narrativised in the contemporary moment, and put into conversation with history of various shapes and sizes.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.