Christian Contribution to Art and Architecture in India



Draft of Article in CBCI KCBC Apostle St. Thomas St.

Francis Xavier Jubilee Documentary Committee [Chaired

by by Bishop Thattungal] Volume,




01.01 Intercultural nature of all art:

What art and architecture is purely indigenous? There is no art or architecture - no sociocultural formations of any significance, anywhere in the world - relating to a nation, a region, a religious or racial or linguistic group - that is fully local or indigenous. The art and architecture of India - secular or religious -  is no exception. Thus Church Art and Architecture of India from the commencement of the Christian presence on these coasts at the dawn of the Christian era have been to a greater or lesser degree influenced by those of other nations and religions as they in turn have been influenced by Indias wealth of artistic and architectural traditions. All the nations and cultures that came into contact with India - the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Moguls, the Parthians, the Iranians, the Arabs (of Pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic persuasions), and the Europeans of a later date including the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danes, the French, and the English have all left their mark on the society and culture of India, as has also been done by the eastern countries and cultures.

01.02 Aspects of art here studied:

The topic "Christian Contribution to Art and Architecture in India" is indeed  vast and

complicated, as most other topics in  this volume are. In addition to the necessity of discussing the chronological, geographical, and denominational aspects, the styles, varieties, types, and schools as well as the genres, localities, media, approximate dates, materials used, purposes and uses,  to name but a few details, of each object, and each group of objects, of art and architecture have to be considered.

01.03 Chronological divisions of Christian Culture:

Take for example the chronological divisions. The history of  Christianity in India  and hence of Christian culture may be said to roughly fall into certain epochs or into various periods: e.g. a) the first few centuries Indian and  Persian influence,  b) the Padroado period,  follwed by c) the Protestant centuries,  and the d) the Propaganda period, e) periods and pockets influenced by personnel from different regions of Europe and America, and, f) the post independence period. The nomenclature employed to describe these periods does not necessarily signify that all the trends appearing in each time-span  were only specific to the  source/s indicated by  the epochs designation. In general we may treat the story of chrstian art and architecture in India by dividing it into 1) the Pre-European period, 2) the  16th to 18th Century developments, and finally 3) the modern period.  

01.04 Regions:

Among the geographical divisions with special reference to Christian art and architecture must be studied Malabar i.e. Kerala, the Konkan belt and the areas under predominant Portuguese influence even upto Mumbai and Vasai along with Portuguese pockets elsewhere, locations associated with the Mogul court, Bengal, the French pockets, and the Carnatic with special reference to the Tamil country, and many other areas of Anglo-American influence.  

01.05 Genres:

Again, consider the genres. While performing arts like song, music and dance, and literary arts like poetry, or the drama or rhetoric do not come under the purview of this article, many genres of fine arts like architecture, sculpture, painting must be discussed. So also objects utilizing or made out of different media or materials  like stone (granite, laterite, marble, sandstone), wood, metal and metal alloys (gold, silver, iron, bronze, brass), pigments (wooden panels, murals, frescos, canvasses, cloth paintings, colouring of statues and other wooden objects), ivory, bone, glass, precious stones, shell, plaster, straw, nutshells, leaves, bricks, mud, clay, concrete, ...all claim our attention.  

01.06 Items of artistic and architectural significance:

There are a large number of  items of artistic and architectural  significance in the religious and domestic / civil life of Indian Christians which come under one or more of the divisions and categories adumbrated above. F.i., in the churches there are ever so many types of roofs, ceilings, facades, porticos, verandahs, naves, chancels, altars, altarpieces, statues, candlesticks, pillars, doors, doorways, architraves, pulpits, crosses, cross pedestals, chalices, censers, censer-boats, bells, belfries, books, book-illustrations, and bookmarks, bibles and bible stands, choirs, tabernacles, monstrances, railings, wall paintings, wooden panels, cloth paintings, vestments, beams, rafters, processional umbrellas, canopies, chariots,... and a thousand and one other objects to be considered. And there is a plethora of household utensils and features of domestic and civil architecture to be considered.

01.07 A viable scheme of study:

Of course it would be next to impossible to at least cursorily deal with even a fraction  of all this. Hence it may be more practical to make an attempt to discuss the main instances and trends in the chief centres of Christian art and architecture then and now, such as (1) Kerala upto the 17th century, (2) the Mogul court, (3) the Goan circle and pockets of Portuguese influence, (4) other regions, (5) some notable architectural landmarks, (6) some remarkable works of art, (7) the 20th century. However in an article of this size  even these topics could not be discussed in any detail.

02.01  Kerala Upto the 17th Century:

The location of the state of Kerala on the western seaboard, at the centre of  the international highway of seaborne trade connecting the East and the West, [and the North with the South] made it a meeting point of many worlds, a melting pot of races and creeds, from early times.1 The Hindu monarchs and chieftains of the Sangam and post-Sangam period ruled over a fertile agricultural tract the peace and safety of which were guaranteed by the Western Ghats on the one side and the Arabian Sea on the other. The land itself was [for long] a secret shared between the sea and the mountain, an illegitimate child of the two natural forces, protected by and provided for by them in a special way.2 But already we find in the first centuries B.C.E. / C.E. that while the monsoon route connected Muziris (Cranganore) directly across the Arabian Sea with cities in the west (e.g. Alexandria, Aden) the West Coastal route gave its ships ready access to the Indus3 and to countries to the North and Northwest in Asia and Europe.4

02.02 Foreign influences:

It would appear that the impact of her trans-Arabian-sea visitors were much more pronounced in the case of Kerala than that of her mainland neighbours,  during and  after the Sangam age. This contact with the countries west has paved the way for considerable influence of the societies and cultures of those lands and their peoples on every phase and aspect of the life of the inhabitants of Kerala. Thus from the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and England have had a great deal of influence on the people of Kerala not only in the matter of material cicumstances of life but also in the field of ideas and ideologies. One of the

strongest areas where this influence is manifested is in the field of Kerala art and architecture in general and Christian art and architecture of Kerala in particular.

02.03 Pre - European period:

Christian art and architecture in Kerala in the pre-European periods had developed obtaining nourishment from two sources: one, from the countries in the near-east including perhaps Greece, Rome, Egypt and the other Middle East countries from which ideas and practices were imported by missionaries and traders, and two, the indigenous forms and techniques of art and architecture that existed in the land.

02.04 Nature of Keralas cultural heritage:

By a happy mingling of these two streams already by the arrival of the west in Kerala there was existing here a strong tradition of Christian art and architecture which was notable for its aesthetic as well as pragmatic excellence. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English and also the missionaries from Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium &c. brought with them their own art traditions which resulted in adding certain features to the already existing structures and traditions without trying to or succeeding in totally replacing the cultural heritage of the Christians. Hence today one can see a harmonious blending of the East and the West in the Christian art and architecture of Kerala although examples are not altogether lacking of attempts made to implant certain incongruous elements into Kerala's cultural formations.

02.05 Two-fold approach:

Hence to understand and estimate the quality and quantity of  Kerala Christian art and architecture it may be best first to analyse the nature of such art and architecture at the coming of the Portuguese in 1498 and thereafter to study the items introduced by various western administrators and missionaries, along with their varieties and spread.

02.06 Two pictures:

Two pictures are available about the churches and churchbuilding activities of the Christians of Kerala at the beginning and end of the sixteenth century. At one end we have the account given by Joseph the Indian and the letter written by the four bishops in 1504.5 At the other end of the century we have the documents of the Synod of Diamper in Malayalam as found in many old Kerala churches6, in Portuguese in the work of Gouvea7, and in English in the work of Geddes8.

02.07  Similarity of Hindu and Christian places of worship:

The tale of how Vasco da Gama went into a Hindu temple in Kerala and mistook it for a church and venerated the idol of Bhagavathi (?) mistaking it for an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary would have clearly illustrated the similarity of the Houses of God in Hinduism and Christianity in Kerala had we any assurance that Gama already knew about the shape of Devalayas in the land from his many spies and scouts.

02.08 State of affairs at the beginning of the 16th century:

The description of the reception given to the bishops at the beginning of the 16th century by the faithful sheds considerable light on the state of the churches, the Christians and their cultural and artistic traditions: ...they were received by the faithful with great joy and they went to meet them with joy, carrying before them the book of the Gospel, the cross, censers, and torches...9. And they, the bishops consecrated altars...10.

02.09 At the end of the 16th century:

In the Synod of Diamper, 1599, there were represented more than a hundred churches of the St. Thomas Christians. This indicates the existence of a very large number of churches already at the coming of the western powers to India. The description of the visits of Archbishop Dom Menezes to various churches before and after the Synod throws some light on the structures and arrangements of the churches before western elements and types were introduced into Malabar.11 It may be remembered that the churches and all their belongings  were the property of the parishioners and each church was built completely from the parish revenues and subscriptions from the local faithful. A student selected from the parish and educated by the parish was the vicar in each parish. It was only after the Synod that westernisation of institutions and structures commenced / gained momentum. The bishops started to have any say whatsoever in the affairs of the parishes only much later, and even today in most Nazraney Churches the parish retains a great deal of autonomy.  

Hence  as has already been remarked to understand and estimate the quality and quantity  of Kerala Christian art and architecture it may be best first to analyse the nature of such art and architecture at the coming of the Portuguese in 1498 and thereafter to study the items introduced by various western administrators and missionaries, along with their varieties and spread.

03.01 The three objects in front of the Kerala church:

There were three striking objects of significance in front of the typical Malabar churches, either inside the courtyard or just outside it: (1) the open-air granite (rock) cross which the present writer has christened Nazraney Sthamba, (2) Kodimaram (Dwajasthamba) or Flag-staff made of Keralas famed teak wood (e.g. at Parur), and often enclosed in copper hoses or paras (as at Changanassery, Pulinkunnu, or Chambakkulam), or made out of some other wood or other material, and (3) the rock Deepasthamba or lampstand. Sthambas or pillars of some type or other are to be found among the Budhists, Jains, Hindus, etc. in India.Such pillars and structures were part of the Christian heritage of Kerala much before the ascendancy of  Vedic Hinduism in these parts , although J.Ferguson does not appear

to have known or cared for the rock monumental Sthambas of  Kerala .12

03.02 Open air granite crosses:

The ubiquitous cross of Malabar churches is best represented by the rock crosses, mostly outside the churches. The open-air rock-cross of Malabar is an obelisk, a tall stone column, with four, sometimes decorated, slightly tapering sides. Rome has many obelisks (from Egypt and East, but no originally cross-bearing structures decorating the piazzas and squares); London has one on the banks of the Thames lovingly called  Cleopatras Needle; Paris has one at the place d la concorde; and even New York has one in the central park. Many memorials like the WashingtonMemorial are obelisk-shaped. The Asoka Pillar and other such Indian pillars were influenced by the Graeco-Parthians, under Egyptian-Persian influence. The Nazraney sthamba is a direct descendant of the obelisk, and much closer to it than the other Indian pillars- in shape, method of constuction and transportaion, method of erection, function, and solar symbolism. The Roman obelisk, bearing crosses today, have been converted to Christianity, while Keralas cross-shaped obelisks were born Christian13. The obelus and the double -dagger reference marks in printing may be profitably recalled here. Such obelisk crosses continued to be erected mostly in front of churches even after western ascendancy without much change although a few changes in the motifs on the pedestals etc. could be noticed.14

03.03 The three-tier gabled indigenous architecture of Kerala churches, which lacked facades until the coming of the Portuguese, immensely gains in richness, symmetry, and beauty because of the open-air rockcrosses, some of them more than 30 feet in height including the intricately carved pedestals, and monolithic shafts. No other community in Kerala has such a huge monumental stone structure. The indoor counterparts of these crosses have the earliest carvings in Kerala of the national flower lotus and the national bird peacock. Perhaps even the national animal tiger is first depicted in Kerala art in church sculpture. There was perhaps  no rock carving in South India prior to the period of these indoor crosses. The motifs, message, and images on these crosses and their pedestals display a remarkable degree of Indianness and Malayalee Thanima or identity. Vedic Hindu Gods and Goddessess like Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva,

Sapthamathas, Jeshta etc. appear in the art of the central Guruvayoor/Palayoor-Quilon part of Chera country only after the 9th-13th centuries, and even in the Salem-Erode section, and the Trivandrum-Cape Comorin section Vedic Hindu deities appear in art only as late as the 9th century A.D.15

03.04 The base with a socket, the monolithic square and slightly tapering shaft with cylindrical terminals, the horizontal piece forming the arms with a double (hole) socket in the middle, and the capital with a cylindrical bottom end are the four members of the open-air cross. They are so well chiselled and proportionate that when put together the socket and cylinder arrangement enables the cross to stand by itself. However for the bigger crosses, pedestals in the form of sacrificial altars or Ballikallus are found, often carrying exquisite reliefs of the flora and fauna of the land in addition to scenes from daily life and biblical scenes. The cross which  represents the supreme Bali (sacrifice) or Mahabali appearing on the Balikkallu or sacrificial altar most appropriately represents the Calvary events and sheds plenty of

light on the ideological, historical, cultural and technological bent of mind of the forefathers.Compare with the base of the Obelisk of Theodosius, Constantinople,.A.D.390.

03.05 The obelisk is a ray of the sun - here a ray of Christ (of Horus -Xt. the sun-God). This ray helps the lotus near - universally depicted on such crosses to blossom

forth representing in a typical Indian poetic conceit the grace received by the sin - bound human soul (panka jam) from Christ. Lotus representing the sun is found in other early Indian art also.The half dozen interior Pehlavi inscribed crosses, some of them surely of pre- 7th century origin, which were mostly tombstones before they were put up on the altars, have generally the dove (Holy Spirit) depicted on top of the clover or flowertipped equal-armed Greek cross, in addition to the lotus at the bottom. In this three piece (Thri-kanda) cross one might, perhaps, with considerable effort read the lotus represented Brahma (Father), the flowery cross (Son), and the dove (Holy Ghost). But the lotus has more universal and more diverse implications in the various eastern creeds.

03.06 The arrangement to hold wicks found on the crosses may be related to the necessity to preserve fire, and the effort to make it available to the common people in the dim past, when Homakundams were rare in Kerala or beyond the reach of the common folk. It is perhaps in connection with the need to preserve fire that the oil-Nerchas and oil Araas  or chambers of the churches, and the compound -wall rocklamps are to be evaluated. The oil related objects in the churches also indicate the connection of this Christianity with the trade of the land, especially oil-trade. The bell like arrangement on some crosses also are noteworthy. Veneration of the cross, angels, Adam and Eve... and of course the Indian Cross itself are some of the religious carvings on these structures.

03.07 Deepasthambas and Deepams: The square or polygonal shape of the individual pieces in the granite or rock lampstands at Kallooppara, Niranam, Kundra, and Chengannur churches indicate the

antiquity of such lampstands in the churches. Unlike in the churches, in the temples the tradition of these lamps continued and thus developed in to the present-day round shape of the pieces. In art history generally the simpler forms make their appearance first, and refinements and complications indicate a later date. Even when the tradition of lampstands declined in the churches, many open-air crosses had wickholders incorporated into them, with the advantage that wind and rain did not put off the flames. Church walls still display rows of rock  lamps.  Inside the churches the tradition of bronze lamps continued vigorously, representing a variety of shapes and types, and some lamps having even hundreds of wickholders, e.g. the Aayiram Aalila lamps at Arthat or Angamaly.

03.07 In front of the church the third interesting object is the flagstaff, sometimes covered with copper paras. Every festival is announced with the Kodiyettu or flag-hoisting, a tradition going back to early Buddhist times at least. All these three objects in the courtyard of the church have a variety of liturgical functions associated with them.

03.08 Baptismal Fonts: Crossing the portico or mukhamandapam  one enters the Haikala or nave beyond the huge doorway with intricately carved doorpanels  called Aanavathils. Either in the nave or in the little room set aside as baptistry one comes across the rock baptismal font. There are interesting rock baptismal fonts at Edappally, Kanjoor, Mylakkombu, Muthalakkodam, Changanassery, Kothamangalam, Kadamattom etc. The similarity of these baptismal fonts with illustrations of the fonts used for the baptism of Constantine (4thC.) and Clovis (Rheims C.496) is remarkable.  All the old baptismal fonts are of granite or very hard laterite. They are all huge in size indicating that baptism by immersion must have been the order of the day. Many of the dozens of old baptismal fonts depicted in the STCEI15 & the ICHC16 were probably of a date prior to the decree of the Synod of Diamper which made permanent fonts more or less compulsory. Although most of the old baptismal fonts/ baptistries are found near the west end or middle of the nave on the northern side - Kaduthuruthy(Big), old Edappally, old Kanjoor, Changanassery (Southern side), in many churches, mostly Jacobite/Orthodox  they are today found close to the sanctuary e.g. Angamaly (Middle-church), Kallooppara.. They are exquisitely carved with reliefs of the baptism of Christ, Mary feeding the Child, angels, or Indian crosses. There are also wonderful motifs of leaves, the basket pattern, coir pattern, etc. engraved on these stones. By the way the very Malayalam word Mammodisakkallu indicates a font made of stone. Another term is mammodisath-thotti. The Holy Water Font is called Annavella Th.-thotti, also generally of stone. The Architraves and doorposts in many churches are good examples of south Indian rock-carving. (e.g.old Kayamkulam, Chengannur, Kanjoor). But the rock-baptismal fonts are the real pride of many an old church.16

03.09  Another aspect of church architecture that has scarcely been affected by the later types from abroad is the old three tier gabled wooden roofing with the highest roof for the Madhbaha or Sanctum Sanctorum and the lowest for the Mukhamandapam or portico with the nave or Hykala having a roof of middle height. Although the rock crosses, the flagstaffs, the rock lampstands, the baptismal fonts, and the three tiered roofing pattern have not been much affected by the western visitors and administrators many of the objects found inside the churches and the very appearance of the inside have undergone many changes after the arrival of the Portuguese and other westerners. Let us look at some of these changes.

04.01 There is an interesting description of Kerala churches in the account of Joseph the Indian, c.1500. The Christians have their churches, which are not different from ours, but inside only a cross will be seen. They have no statues of the saints. The churches are vaulted like ours. On the foundation is seen a big cross just as in our place. [May be the open air cross?] They have not any bells. 17 There is much truth in the statement of George Varghese: But once these churches came under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, the ornate monumentality of the European churches was introduced into the small temple-like Syrian Christian churches, which even did not have windows in the early past. Thebaroque and ornate altars with statues and foliages replaced the Chaldeo-Syrian altars, which were in fact

only stone-tables with nothing more than candles, Chalice and the Holy Book on them, the bare necessities for observing the Holy Mass. Despite unpleasant frictions with the Portuguese, both in political and ecclesiastical matters, this was the golden era of  Church Art in Kerala. They introduced the Romano-Portuguese style, which was  assimilated with such artistic and structural finesse by the artists of Kerala, so that it created some of the finest pieces of artistry in the Nazraney school. Later,  the British also were equally enthusiastic in introducing their skills and forms into the Church Art of Kerala. Hence, from a conservative perspective, the art in these churches may appear eclectic, with diverse traditions, both western and eastern, superimposed one over the other. The exclusively Asiatic symbols like stone lamps, flag masts, stone-crosses, arched entrances etc., untouched by the foreign hands, co-exist with the Renaissance frescoes, and the Baroque Art of Europe in the same church-complex. There is, in fact, an underlying unity behind this apparently confused juxtaposition of images, symbols and monuments; this is due to the fact that as universal archetypes, images and symbols of religions, both in the west and in the east, have many common elements.18

04.02 Among the additions which took place in Kerala churches with the advent of Europeans might be counted paintings and sculptures on a large scale, imposing altarpieces or reredos; rostra or pulpits, statues of all sizes, types and shapes; plaster mouldings and pictures; huge bells and belfries. Murals and frescoes on a very large scale make their appearance as well as paintings on wood panels and clothe. But the most apparent introduction of the Portuguese was the facades they put up between the portico and the nave in order to impart a Christian appearance to the churches.19

04.03 The mural tradition of Kerala is ably represented in the churches of Kerala. Many pictures depicted on the walls of Kerala churches may be older than the well known Mughal and Rajput paintings.20 Some interesting murals, all of which use only pigments extracted directly from natural objects like leaves, laterite stone, &c., are to be seen in the churches at Angamaly, Akapparambu, Paliekkara, and Cheppad. Silparatna esp. its Chitralakshana division , the Sudhalepavidhana etc. deal in detail with the colours and additional materials and their application in Indian mural painting. It is interesting to note that the early paintings and iconography of Kerala churches strictly adhere to the concepts of Indian sages and craftsmen on these matters. Interesting old-time wooden panels are seen at Piravaom, Kottayam, Changanassery and Ollur churches. The vast interior of the Ollur church has thousands of square feet covered with frescos.

04.04    Today we have a few churches and places of worship in Kerala which adhere more or less to one or other of the classical christian architectural styles like the Basilican, Romanesque, Byzantine, Gothic, Baroque, Rococco, etc. but more often than not the churches built in the twentieth century are combinations of various styles, both eastern and western. Elements of Saracenic, Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist origin are also common. And there are a large number of churches which are like any other place of assembly such as a Cinema-house, an international conference centre, or a town-hall, or Kalyana Mandapam.

04.05 Kerala churches built, restored, or reconstructed after the 16th century have many features in common with such structures elsewhere in India, esp. in Goa and environs,  and as such are not  treated separately.

05.01  Portuguese Influence and the Goan Circle: After the arrival of Vasco da Gama and more especially after the commencement of Portuguese ascendancy in India two distinct patterns of Christian art developed, one within the areas of Portuguese influence, mostly along the coasts of the peninsula, and the other at the Mogul (Mughal) Court in the North.


Twelve years after the arrival of da Gama at Calicut in Kerala Alphonso de Albuquerque brought Goa under Portuguese rule in 1510. Thirtytwo years later Francis Xavier arrived in Goa in 1542. Christian communities began to grow up in Goa. In the words of Mathew Lederle, S. J. :21 It was a characteristic of the Lusitanian period that the newly gained Christian Faith found expression in feasts, customs, songs, dances. In Goa grew up what has become up to now the only complete form of Christian art in India, comprising both the sacred and the profane, encompassing the whole of human life. We speak of the Indo-Portuguese Baroque. This phrase is not to be taken in too literal a meaning. Though being predominantly Baroque, it was not restricted to Baroque nor to Portuguese. Almost any form of European religious art of the 16th to 18th centuries and cultural traditions of various countries left their traces in Goa. The Portuguese were great builders and promoted  architecture more than any other form of fine art. The Christian art of Goa reached its climax in church building. [For some illustrations cf. Thomas Encyclopaedia,Vol.1.] These churches were elaborately decorated; they expressed the Baroque ideal of making visible  here on earth the heavenly darbar, centred round the Eucharistic presence of Christ among his people.

The composite Indo-Portuguese culture which developed in Goa [and elsewhere in India] over more than 450 years of Portuguese presence in this locality of Indias West Coast, is a fascinating but vast subject..with...the shapes which European Baroque, with the Christian art and architecture which came with it, took in the hands of the Indian artisans and craftsmen who had their own repertoire of skills, styles and motifs, developed through millennia of building and carving - the unique, locally developed style of the Hindu temple and its companion lamp-tower...22

05.03 Cochin continued to be the Portuguese capital in India until 1530. Western style forts, houses, churches with their spires, and monasteries began to be built in Cochin and Goa. Fort Manuel at Cochin was enlarged and the Mattanchery Palace, now called the Dutch Palace was constructed and gifted to the Maharajah of Cochin

for the favours granted. In Cochin even today can be seen many of the churches and convents the Portuguse built - such as the St. Francis church, the first European place of worship in India perhaps, where Vasco da Gama was first buried, although the church itself  became afterwards a Dutch church and later an English church and finally came to be under the Church of South India. It is a protected monument today under the Archaeological Survey of India as is also the so-called Dutch Palace not very far from it.  In this locality can also be seen the Santa Cruz Cathedral, the palace of the Bishop of Cochin, the St. Bartholomew church, the Dominican church and the St. Pauls church.

05.04 Already by 1542 Francis Xavier writes that Goa is a city entirely of Christians, something worth seeing. There is a monastery of friars,... he continues, and a noble cathedral with many canons, and many other churches. City planning and building activity continued apace so much so by the end of the 16th century Goa is compared to Lisbon and is termed the Rome of the East. And Francois Pyrard has this to say: The buildings of the churches and palaces, both public and private, are very sumptuous and magnificent. The Se Cathedral begun in the middle of the 16th century, some years after the completion of the first church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, and the church of Our Lady of the Rosary are examples of the earliest large-scale building activity in Goa. The latter brings to mind the contemporary need for a church to be also a fort at the same time.       

05.05 The ecclesiastical furniture of that time was artistically formed altar pieces, pulpits, statues, sepulchres, tombstones, chairs, tables, confessionals. Special attention was given to the sacristies, their ceilings, their walls, their almirahs. [See the illustrations in Vol.II (1973) and I (1982) of the Thomas Encyclopaedia.] Even now a large number of excellent statues both in churches and in homes are still available, done in wood or in ivory, the delight of the tourist and the souvenir collector. These statues betray their European artistic inspiration, but they also show the hand of the local artisans. Some figures have local face expressions. In a large stucco representation in the Margao church, the Virgin in standing on a peacock which may have been influenced by the presentation of Parvati standing on a peacock. Goa had a developed art of painting, first done by Europeans, then taken up by local craftsmen. Often the paintings were on wood, as it was difficult to get a good canvas. Murals too are to be found, as also work in precious metals. The most outstanding piece of craftsmanship done in Goa is the reliquary of St.Francis Xavier executed in Goa in 1936-37. Embroidery too, was encouraged. The Indian contribution to Goan art is more in the decorations than in the church structures, which on the whole, kept the forms of their European origins.Though the employment of Hindu artisans to produce objects of Christian worship was forbidden by ecclesiastical and secular authorities, both Christian and non-Christian artists were employed even by religious orders.23 The new Euro-impressed, Indian Baroque made its first appearance in Kerala, where Catholic churches came up on the Indian temple plan [Kerala architectural plan], giving full scope to the native wood-worker to show on a wider scale than he was accustomed to , his carving skills while sculpting church-ordained motifs and themes. These skills were to meet, in a dazzling display of gold painted wood carving, the challenges of crafting ceilings, outsized altars, retables and pulpits in numerous churches in Goa and other Portuguese territories on the West Coast.24  

05.06 The tower of the Augustinian monastery, the Jesuit hospital, the Bom Jesus Basilica cloisters and the shrine of the saint, the church of St. Peter, the Santa Monica, Rachol, Pilar are only some of the edifices which must be studied for their architectural features and artistic treasures. And  many other churches and public buildings in the various divisions of Goa still proclaim the glory of Golden Goa as sung by Luis de Camoens in his celebrated epic Os Lusiadas.25

05.07     The Hellenistic inspired Gandhara school of art and the Indo-Persian creations of the Mughal period have been claimed as Indian art. The European-Christian inspired art of Goa, too, has to get its place among the various forms of Indian art.26            

It is remarkable that Goan art reached its highest development during the 17th century, a period of  political decline, and of a growing Hindu dominance of Goan economy. The Christian art of Goa was carried on not by political patronage but by the devotion of the people. (For this section cf.E.R.Hambye, S.J., Christian Art in Goa-Some Reflections, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay, XIL-XIIL,1966-67, New Series, pp.194-202).27

06.01The Mogul Court and Christian Art 28: The Christian art in Goa grew up within a Christian community reflecting the socio-cultural mood of this community. Something quite different developed in Northern India at the court of Akbar(1556-1605). The Mohammedan empire in the North was different from the various smaller political powers in the South of India. Akbar, open to other religions, invited Jesuit priests to his court. They aimed at gaining influence at the highest cultural and intellectual level. Jesuits stayed at the court from 1550-83,1591,1595-1603. They could even continue their stay when Aurangzeb ascended the throne in 1658.

As there were no large Christian communities in the North there was no need for big churches. The Jesuits made good use of paintings, and especially engravings which were more easily available and transportable. These gifts were appreciated for their

artistic qualities and for their religious contents. For example they presented to Akbar a copy of Plantins Polyglot Bible printed in 1569-72 for Philip II of Spain, illustrated with engravings by Flemish artists of the school of Quentin Matsys.

Akbar ordered his court painters to copy the new art. They copied, adapted and in some cases created new pictures, a happy blending of Christian content and local forms. Throughout the period there was interest in and preference for religious themes. This continued even when secular pictures reached India through officials of the East India Company and the Dutch embassy. Religious pictures in India at that time referred mainly to mythology or they showed human beings who were not divine. The Gospel scenes appealed as they showed the divine through human forms. They were religious paintings with historical motives. The Jesuit mission at Agra succeeded not only using art as a very effective missionary medium, but also in founding a new school of painting. This was profoundly influenced by Western techniques and was in a way of Christian art, yet it was also free enough and copious

enough to be a genuine and almost a major element in the art-life of its time and place.(J.F.Butler, op.cit., p.66) At present, upto one hundred Christian pictures of the Mughal period are still in existence. Besides paintings, ivory and wood work, statues and panels with Christian themes were produced at that time.

Along with the general decline in creativity during the period preceding British rule in India, Indian  Christian art also lost its impetus. Of the works of the later period some have their origin in Pondicherry, Vishakapatnam and other centres of French


Some Sources for Christian Art in the Mogul Court:

Space does not permit the present  writer to go deeper.  However exhaustive information on this phase of Christian art in India can be obtained from the Sir Edward Maclagan, The Jesuits and the Great Moguls, London 1932.  The chapters dealing with the first, second, and third missions to Akbar (II, III, IV), and the fifth chapter  dealing with Jahangir,  must be read. But more especially  chapter XIII entitled Culture and Language (pp. 190 - 202) and chapter XV, The Missions and Mogul Painting (pp. 222 - 267). The works by Fr. Hosten also has a great fund of information on the present topic.

Attention of the reader is invited to these illustrations in Maclagans book: The first Jesuit mission arguing before Akbar (Narsingh); The Good Shepherd (Maskin); S. Matthew (Kesho); The court of Jehangir, including a Jesuit priest; Shah Jahan and a

courtier, with Christian symbols (Bichitr); S. Cecilia (Nini); The inn at Bethlehem; An Indian artist drawing the Madonna (Kesho); and Figures from Durer.

The interest  shown by Akbar and Jehangir in the missionaries and the western paintings  was not unmixed.  For example see this passage in Jahangir and the Jesuits, London, 1930:  While he (Jahangir) prized the sacred pictures which the Fathers gave him, not, as they fondly imagined, out of veneration for the subjects represented, but because he had a passion for works of art and curios of all kinds, and especially for pictures, of which he was not only an enthusiastic collector, but a very competent judge.   

Indian Christian Art in Modern Times: When the third period of Christian influence in

India began, its missionary method was pioneered by William Carey in Bengal, stress was laid on literature (the Bible) and education. The fine arts were neglected; compared with the previous period there was less interest in music, drama, feasts and festivals.Church buildings showed often the influence of the country of origin of the respective missionary society. Still, as regards painting there have been more creative attempts during this modern period than ever before. We find two types of paintings: those done by non-Christians and those done by Christians. This corresponds to two efforts at understanding Christ in relation to Indian traditions. Non-Christian painters expressed their search and insights in relation to the person of Christ, Christian Painters interpreted Christ through the means of Indian traditions. Christian painting in India, and especially its modern period is excellently treated by R.W.Taylor, Jesus in Indian Paintings, Madras, CLS, 1975.   

Contributions of Non-Christians to Indian Christian Art28:

Members of the modern renaissance movement in India showed great interest in Christ, especially during the early religion based period, above all in the Brahmo Samaja movement of Bengal, and then again in the Gandhian movement. The first modern school of art in India, the Bengal School of Art centred in Shantiniketan, was through the Tagore family closely linked with the Brahmo Samaja movement. Also Gandhijis influence was felt at Shantiniketan. C.F.Andrews lived there for some time.

Nandalal Bose studied under Abindranath Tagore and exercised great influence in the Bengal School. Of the Christian painters Angaelo da Fonseca and Vinayak S. Masoji studied under both of them. One of the recurring themes of Nandalal Boses Christian paintings is the cross. Representations of Christ on the cross and his passion, his love of the humble and the low, along with the representation of the incarnation (Christ and his mother Mary) will for many an artist be the medium through which they express their own ideals and struggle, their experiences and insights.Jamini Roy, for several years chose Christ as a main theme for his paintings. He did not belong to the Bengal School, but drew his inspiration from Bengal folk art of Western Europe. K.C.S.Paniker carried on the spirit of India in a modern form. Intense in his colours and expressive in his form he was often drawn to Christian themes. R.W.Taylor sees in his Christian paintings a pronounced social dimension and a tendency largely towards the events of the passion.(R.W.Taylor, op.cit., p.78). It was also Paniker who said, and this shows one of the reasons why he was attracted to paint Christ, If you scratch Christ there is the carpenters son, something authentic.(Taylor, ibid, p.73). P.V.Janakiram specialised in wash and tempera techniques and later in sculpture and reliefs. Christian themes are recurring in his works. The most often portrayed theme is the cross, followed by the theme of the Virgin and the Child. Christian themes with these artists share their place of predominance with many other themes and there are many artists who never painted any explicitly Christian subject, yet the number of those who did is astonishingly great.

Christian Artists in Modern Times30:   

During recent times several Christian  artists have come forward to express their Christian Faith through the medium and form of Indian art. The comprehensiveness and openness with which this is done is something new. The newness is in this that the artist, not always consciously perhaps, regards the traditional and contemporary forms of Indian art as his own also. He is not an intruder into something not related to him. Still he has to do a pioneering job. Christian paintings now in use in homes  and churches are to a large extend western and often than not of an inferior quality. The artist can in a visible way express the ideal of the integration of the Christian community in the country. He can also contribute towards activating an Indian orientation of the Christian communities. The people using religious art in India are not always attuned to modern trends in painting. Indian Christian works of art are more accepted if they are linked up with one of the periods of the past: Ajantha, Mughal, Neo-Bengali. Experience shows that the artists themselves undergo a change. We can recognise the development of an even greater individuality, a more personal note as the years go by.This requires that the individual artist finds encouragement, enlightened sympathetic criticism - and also patronage. Art can only progress if the artists can also live from their art. The purchase of original works for homes and institutions is a very realistic way of promoting art.

The Christian artist in India is confronted by a number of difficulties. The popular, widely accepted bazaar art shows that many are satisfied with cheap, artistically inferior works of art, as their artistic taste remains underdeveloped. It is a widely spread opinion that representations related to a historic religion have to show the religious events and persons in a historically true setting, in something like a photographic presentation. But with the exclusion, perhaps, of the shroud of Turin, we have no historically correct representation of Christ. Besides the art of painting is different from the photographic art. An artist expresses in colour and form what he feels, how he understands. He does this through the media which are congenial to him, the media from his own culture. In Western modern art, Christ is portrayed in many ways; he is seen as the leader of masses, the redeemer, the man of sorrow, the bringer of peace besides all the various other forms Christian Faith or the inspiration of his person suggests. He is depicted in realism, impressionism, expressionism, cubism and many other trends of painting. An Indian artist will look at Christ through Indian eyes and this will give his discovery meaning, form and beauty.

In the Bible, for example, in the childhood narrations of Christ, passages are expressed as midrash. Midrash means research.The sacred writer searched the old scriptures for passages which would interpretatively depict a present reality. That the child was brought to the temple 490 days after the angels announcement to Zachariah depicts the 490 years mentioned by Daniel and supposedly required till the coming of the Messiah. The child brought to the temple is therefore the Messiah. Should one not speak of a cultural midrash also? Searching in the treasures of a given tradition, modern and ancient, the artist takes the language of this tradition to explain his own insights. As there are many traditions in India the Christian artists in India may speak in many ways of the one reality of his Faith.

As the Christian influence in the shaping of Indian traditions is a minor one, the symbols of these traditions will therefore not always adequately express Christian meanings. While Christians in India have a preference for typically Christian symbols

(e.g. the cross) or at least neutral symbols (e.g.flame, flower, gesture of offering), they are reluctant to accept symbols with a typical Hindu cannotation (e.g.the word OM). Art India, Pune a publishing centre for Indian Christian art, prints pictures with various symbols, the same amount at the same time. It is possible, therefore, to determine the likes and dislikes of the buyers.It has to be kept in mind that most symbols, in the course of centuries, have been given various meanings. Let us take the symbol of the peepal tree. Ancient Indian tradition represents the cosmos in the form of a giant, inverted tree. This tree, a peepal tree, buried its roots in the sky and spreads  its branches over the whole earth. It represents creation as a descending order. There have been interpretations which were pantheistic and therefore not acceptable to Christians. There were also other interpretations fully agreeable with Christian ideas. This gives the symbol a certain ambivalence. A Christian can see in the inverted peepal tree a representation of creation in a descending order. This can point to Christ, as He, through Him and for Him all things were created, appeared as man and Saviour. The peepal tree reminds then of the first creation and of the new creation brought about by the coming of Christ. (In this sense the peepal tree has been used for a Christmas card by Sr.Veera Pereira.)

Symbols become part of a culture; they stay even when philosophies change; they are then reinterpreted.This holds good also as regards basic concepts, e.g. karma,maya,etc. Symbols may even have been given tantric interpretations with erotic meanings, even shocking erotic meanings. But this does not mean that these symbols are necessarily connected with such meanings. If a symbol is reinterpreted, it is done in the hope that the new meaning can hold its ground, does not lead to syncretism, and strikes a new cord in the depths of ones soul.  

The number of Christian artists who struggled to present their Faith through the medium of Indian culture is considerable. One of the great pioneers is Angelo de Fonseca, a Catholic of Goan origin who grew up in Pune and studied under Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose. When he left Shantiniketan, Abanindranath gave him the commission, Now go out and paint churches. It was only towards the end of his life (he died in 1968) that the general climate had changed in favour of Indian art. He worked for many years in the inspiring atmosphere of the Anglican Khrista Prem Seva Ashram, Pune. His more than 500 paintings show how he grew in his work, how he left the early Bengal School influence and developed his own style- mainly,harmonious,impressive,with its clear

lines and the preference for earthen coloured shades. A.da fonsca freely shared his wide experience when an altar had to be erected, an ecclesiastical vestment designed, a church built, and vessels to be used. He pointed our how much, genuinely good, was available in the small shops of the cities and in the bazaars.

Alfred D.Thomas, an Anglican, from Uttar Pradesh, depicted Christs life and ministry. His Christ had the ideal male body of classical Indian sculptures,with broad shoulders and narrow waist. His Christ was soft but not feminine. His women had the fully flowered female forms of the classical tradition.

Vinayak S.Masoji, born 1897, at Kolhapur, a member of the United Church of Northern India, studied at Shantiniketan, and became the Director of its  Kalabhavan. He painted, modelled, worked with leather, wood and in Batik. He wanted to express a message that India could understand. In the Mughal style of painting  he found a method suitable to tell stories, in his case to retell biblical events in an Indian setting. A biography is now being prepared and published by friends.

Angela Trinidade, comes from a distinguished artist family of Bombay. She painted Christs life in the Ajantha style, a wide step away from the Western techniques of her father, often called the Rembrandt of the East. Later she changed and painted in

triangular forms. She explains this to be the result of a religious experience she had. Now she wants to express everything in this triangular trinitarian form.           

Frank Wesley, a Methodist from Northern India, lives at present, like A.D. Thomas and Angela Trinidade, outside of India. He intends to paint the external rather than the historical Christ, to paint Him with Indian feeling.(c.f.R.W.Taylor, op.cit.p.135). Frank Wesley likes to use symbols. He is a gifted artist,able to use various styles and methods. In this way he conveys an idea more than he reveals himself.

The  most popular Christian artist in India at present, (popularity here means demand for her paintings), is Sr. Genevieve, now at Bangalore, a nun of French origin. She likes to give importance to lines and   to striking colours. (There are two

pictures by her in the Thomas Encyclopaedia II, 1973.) Her figures, often the humble, the meek in the spirit of the Gospels, have an intense quality of Indianness.

She painted many scenes of the Lords life, especially Christmas scenes. She has prepared huge compositions, slides series, film strips, and the Old Testament series of the NBCL Centre, Bangalore. Sr. Genevieve, in more recent years, has raised a voice of warning against the use of Hindu symbols, which she regards, to a large extent, as unsuitable for use in Christian paintings.

Sr. Genevieve's disciple, Sr. Claire from Andhra Pradesh, a convert from Hinduism, is a member of the same religious congregation as Sr. Genevieve. Sr. Claire has great talent, her paintings are attractive, simple, and full of feeling. At Nueremberg, Germany, a calendar for 1976 with her pictures was published. She writes about these pictures, I love our Mother Mary so much that you will find her on all my pictures. Recently she has worked with cloth also and for silk-screen printing and painted two sets of stations of the cross.

Jyoti Sahi, Catholic from Bangalore, had some ashram experience and has a wide cultural background. He built his home, an artists ashram, in a village near Bangalore. He wrote ( 19.2.76) about a prospective chela, I would teach the person what I can, but would expect the person to be fully involved in my work, that would be not only painting, but helping in the village, doing things about the house, even gardening at times, helping me to teach others - you know, the sort of creativity events I am increasingly involved in. It would be good if he thought of the possibility

of religious art being his profession eventually. Jyoti Sahi combines art with theological reflection. His lectures at the Jnana Deepa Vidyapeetha, Pune are greatly appreciated. For him the symbols of the Hindu tradition are to be creatively interpreted. It can be said about him, that he searches for the Unknown Christ in Hinduism. Missio, Germany, published a beautiful calendar with mandalas (symbols helpful for meditation) in 1975. This was received as a gift of the Indian Church to a Church in the West, in a spirit of partnership.

Due to shortage of space we can mention only the names of other Christian artists: A. Alphonso, Madras; Sudhir Bairagi, Bengal; Frederick Chellappa; Anthony Doss; F. N. DSouza; Eustace Fernandes, Bombay; John W. Gonsalves; Taba Jamyang, Mussoorie; Peter Lewis; K.N. Misra, Lucknow; Lemuel Patole, Bombay, (now - 1976 -

in the USA); Albert O. Pengal, Bombay; Duckett J. Prim; G. D. Paul Raj; Olympio C. Rodrigues, Bombay; V. M. Sathe; G. R. Singh; Sr. Sylvestra, FMM, Madras; Sr.Theresa, O. Carm., Sitagarha; Marcus Topno (+), Ranchi; Joseph V. Ubale (+), Bombay; W. Vandekerckhove, SJ, Ranchi. In the field of painting modern Indian Christian art has achieved considerable results.  As regards statuary, most of what is produced is  on the level of artistically inferior plaster-of-Paris production. The artistic level of the 17th century has not been reached. The more extensive use of wood, metal and ivory for statues would mark a big step forward. The present (1976) mood for function and utility does not include sufficient encouragement for the promotion of embroidery and woodwork.


A number of other artists  and a large number of objects of art and architecture aught to be dealt with in this article. Some areas and locations are almost left out. But it is hoped that a general appreciation of the origin and development of Indian Christian art, its variety, its spread, its influence could be gained from what has been attempted here.


1. M. G. S. Narayanan,  Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala, Trivandrum, 1972, p.1.

2. Id., p. vii.

3. George  Menachery in  Kodungallur : City of St. Thomas, Kodungallur, 1987, p.4, et.sq. of 2000 reprint.

4. Id. p. 19, n.3 which refers to the many relevant maps in Bjorn Landstorm, The Quest for India, Stockholm, 1964  and in the Atlas  by G.M. in Menachery, George (Ed.), The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, Vol. I, esp. those dealing with the Journeys of  St. Thomas, Marco Polo, B. Diaz, & St. F. Xavier.

5. We quote from the edition by  Schurhammer, Georg, The Malabar Church and Rome, Trichinopoly, 1934, the relevant portion of which is reprinted in  the Indian Church History Classics, Vol. I The Nazranies,  Ed. G. Menachery, Ollur, Jan. 1998, pp.526 - 529.

6. Cf. Scaria Zachariah, Udayamperur Soonnahadosinte Kaanonakal, in Malayalam, 1998.  

7. Jornada, Lisbon and Coimbra, 1606. A new English translation is being published by the LIREC, Mount St. Thomas, Ernakulam.

8. London, 1694; reprinted in Vol. II of Hough, History of Christianity in India, pp.511 - 683; and  a new rendering in Menachery (Ed.), The Nazranies, pp. 31 - 112.

9. Schurhammer, op. cit. p.526, col.2 in The Nazranies.

10. Id., ibid.

11. Geddes, op. cit., passim. Visits to Mangate (Alangad), Cheuree (Chowara), Canhur (Kanjur), Molandurte (Mulanthuruthi), Carturte (Kaduthuruthy), Nagpili (Nagapuzha), Diamper (Udayamperur),Paru (Parur), are quite illuminative in this respect.

12. History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, London, 1876. Quoted by Menachery, George in Pallikkalakalum Mattum (Malayalam), Trichur, 1984, p.60.

13. This writer  during  interviews on Radio Vatican in 1975 and 1978.

14. For  these thoughts vide G. Menachery, Pallikalile Kala, Mathrubhoomi Weekly, March 1978.

15. For details Pallikkalakalum Mattum  and also paper by Menachery, G.,  Social Life and Customs of the St. Thomas Christians in the Pre-Diamper Period, Mt. St. Thomas, June 1999. Printed in The Life and Nature of the St. Thomas Christian Church in the Pre - Diamper Period, Ed. Bosco Puthur, Kochi, 2000, pp.188 - 203. Also the writers papers at the World Syriac Conferences and the Societas Liturgica Congress reproduced in various issues of the HARP, Kottayam (Ed. Dr. Jacob Thekkepparampil)  and the St. Thomas Christians Journal. Rajkot ( Ed. Mar Gregory Karotempral).

16. For hundreds of illustrations dealing with the art and architecture of Kerala Christians see Vol. II of the STCEI (alternately the Thomapedia) and the Nazranies.

17. India in 1500 A. D. about Joseph the Indian by A. Vallavanthara, Trivandrum, 1984, chapters 4 and 5.

18. His unpublished paper  Construction of Images in the Art of Early Christian Churches, presented at Trichur and  Kottayam which may be seen on the ICHR website. Also see articles by Dr. James Menachery and P.Andrews Athappally in the STCEI, II, Trichur, 1973.

19. From Yule Ed. Cordier, Travels of Marco Polo , Vol. II,  London, 1926 reproduced in the STCEI, II, pp.12, col. 2 ff.

20. George Menachery, Malayala Manorama, Sunday Supplement, April 19, 1987.  

21. Unpublished article written by Mathew Lederle (21.2.1976) for the St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India now scheduled to be included in STCEI Vol.III.

22. T.P. Issar, Goa Dourada The Indo-Portuguese Bouquet, Unesco aided work, Bangalore,1997. This interesting   volume has an excellent collection of photographs dealing exhaustively with the art and architecture of the Goan Circle along with many insightful comments.  

23. Lederle, op. cit.

24. Issar, op. cit., p.35.

25. There were constructed in Goa hundreds of churches, chapels, wayside crosses and statues, monasteries, and convents in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. For example 25 churches in Ilhas, 25 in Salcete, 7 in Marmugao, 27 in Bardez, and dozens in other locations including Old Goa. Other Portuguese territories also had their own share of churches in these centuries. Cf., f.i., An Illustrated Guide to Goa, Furtado,1922 (pp.183 ff.). Also cf. the many other  guides, ecclesiastical directories, and publications.

26. Lederle, op. cit.

27. Lederle, op. cit. As this pathbreaking article written in 1976 by. Fr. Lederle for the St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia could not be included in the 1982 volume by this writer and as it did not see the light of day during the authors lifetime large portions from it are being reproduced here for the first time.

28.Lederle, op. cit.

29.Lederle, op. cit.

30.Lederle, op. cit.