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  • Writer's pictureAnirudh Kanisetti

Of Matas, Nagas and Islamicate Tiles: The Art of Christian India

While in Old Goa a while ago, I had the opportunity to challenge some of the ideas I'd had about the continuity of Indian cultural traditions in Portuguese Goa. The Museum of Christian Art features dozens of objects spanning nearly half a millennium, some from as far as Lisbon, but many made and donated by Goans.

Most striking to me was a statue of Nirmala Matha - quite literally 'immaculate mother' - depicted as many Hindu goddesses are today, using the same drapery and posture as Raja Ravi Varma's influential reimagining of these deities in the 19th-20th century. But there are so many more examples, in art, of the Indianness of Goan Christianity.

A 19th-century chalice retains the beautiful overflowing pot that is so integral to Indian iconography, being visible in Deccan Sultanate mosques and South Indian temples alike.

An 18th century set of altar ornaments, depicting nagas, are another sign of how deeply influenced Christian Goan Indians continued to be by their indigenous mythologies.

The beautiful silver filigree around a European-inspired painting of the Virgin Mary seems to use a method that is still current in Odisha today, suggesting significant interaction between the regions in the 17th century.

The establishment of Portuguese rule over Goa was certainly a traumatic cultural event - the Goan Inquisition, to this day, remains one of the best-attested examples of religious persecution in premodern South Asia. But it would be an overstatement to say that Portuguese rule and Christianisation succeeded in erasing Goa's culture: instead, it reinvigorated its Indian Ocean and global connections and made many indigenous elites and artisans wealthy.

These connections are exemplified by the azulejo tiles in the Convent of Santa Monica. The Convent was commissioned by a Persian Christian woman, and to this day its altars are decorated with tiles that would not seem out of place in a mosque. These tiles originated in Iberia when it was under the rule of Muslim dynasties such as the Umayyads, and they were used by the Portuguese in Europe and then brought to India - where, by this point, you would also have seen mosques with influences from Central Asia and West Asia as well. These objects thus represent a magnificent coming together of centuries of artistic development across the enormous Afro-Eurasian landmass at a time when Europeans were beginning to integrate the Americas into global trade.

Historical change, cultural interaction, and religious contacts are so much more complex than we usually think, and it's not easy to make this apparent through a single exhibit. Take a bow, Museum of Christian Art. May your kind grow and prosper.

This post originally appeared on my Instagram page - follow me for more on India's history, art, and interactions with the world. Thoughts or ideas about what I should write about? Use the "Contact" button above!

Image Credits:

"Nirmala Matha", "Naga Altar Ornaments", "Frame with Virgin and Child", and "Chalice and Paten" were photographed by Antionio Cunha under the commission of the CGF. All these objects belong to the collection of the Museum of Christian Art, Convent of Santa Monica, Old Goa.

The Great Penance Relief and Raja Ravi Varma's Lakshmi are from Wikimedia Commons.

The example of Tarakasi filigree belongs to the American Institute of Indian Studies.

The image of the altar at the Convent of Santa Monica is my own.

I do not claim any ownership or credit for these images and I use them only for educational purposes.



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