Christian art in India: Indo-Portuguese ivory statuettes


Left: The Christ Child as Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery) from the collection of The Walters Art Museum (accession number 71.324). Indo-Portuguese, ivory, seventeenth century, place of origin: India (Goa). Right: Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) from the collection of The Walters Art Museum (accession number 71.341). Singhalo-Portuguese, ivory, seventeenth century, place of origin: Sri Lanka.

Left:The Christ Child as Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery), Indo-Portuguese, ivory, seventeenth century, 17.4 × 6.8 × 5 cm, place of origin: India (Goa) (The Walters Art Museum); right: Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception), Singhalo-Portuguese, ivory, seventeenth century, 25.7 cm high, place of origin: Sri Lanka (The Walters Art Museum)

Seated on a tiered landscape, with eyes closed in sleep, the Christ Child ponders his eventual role on earth, as sacrifice for the sins of humans. Standing on a crescent moon with hands clasped at her chest, the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception gazes towards the viewer. These two statuettes are examples of a large number of ivory figural types created in Goa and Sri Lanka during the time of Portuguese rule that began in the 16th century. [1] For this reason, these small sculptures are often referred to as Indo-Portuguese in scholarship and by museums. [2] 

Map showing Lisbon (the capital of Portugal), Calicut, and Goa (underlying map © Google)

Map showing Lisbon (the capital of Portugal), Calicut, Goa, and Sri Lanka (underlying map © Google)

Christianity in India 

The arrival of Vasco da Gama’s fleet to Calicut in 1498 marked the beginning of Portuguese evangelization in the lands along the Malabar (southwestern) Coast of India. [3] The Portuguese saw themselves as promoting and spreading Christian ideas and values, part of a global Catholic missionary enterprise that sought to convert non-Christians to the faith. 

By the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese had established themselves in Goa, a small state on the western coast of India, with the goals of dominating the spice trade and promoting the Christian faith. Various Christian religious orders came to Goa at this time to begin the process of converting the mostly Hindu population of Goa. For the mission enterprise, churches were constructed, and small, portable images of the Catholic divine were carved in ivory and wood. Larger wooden sculptures depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Catholic saints were also created to adorn the interior of the churches. These sacred spaces and divine figures would serve to shelter, teach, and convert the population of Goa to Christianity.

Se Cathedral, Old Goa, India (photo: Abhiomkar, CC BY-SA 3.0); right: the Church of Bom Jesus, Old Goa, India

Sé Cathedral, Old Goa, India (photo: Abhiomkar, CC BY-SA 3.0); right: the Church of Bom Jesus, Old Goa, India

In Old Goa, the former capital of Portuguese India, there are numerous churches that reflect European influence, such as the Sé Cathedral and the Church of Bom Jesus, with the former composed of a nave and side aisles of equal height. These churches recall those in Lisbon, with images of the Christian divine adorning the main altar and side altars. [4] A wooden sculpture of Saint Francis Xavier (not shown here), for instance, is found in the Church of Bom Jesus.

Madonna of the Immaculate Conception (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) from the collection of The Walters Art Museum (accession number 71.342). Indo-Portuguese, ivory, seventeenth century, place of origin: India (Goa).

The hem of this figure’s  garment shows the typical scalloping design seen on numerous examples of Indo-Portuguese ivory statuettes. Madonna of the Immaculate Conception (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception), Indo-Portuguese, ivory, seventeenth century, 26.1 × 7 × 5.4 cm, place of origin: India (Goa) (The Walters Art Museum)

Small, portable images included, for example, figurines carved in ivory, ranging from several inches to over a foot in height. These statuettes could serve as devotional objects on church altars in Goa and private altars in Goan homes, and within churches and homes abroad. Several thousand statuettes in various sizes were carved by Indian artisans under the direction of the religious orders, most notably the Jesuits (a Christian religious order founded in 1540). The Jesuits had a special interest in understanding the cultures they encountered worldwide, and they worked directly with indigenous artists to support their missionary work. As art historian Gauvin Alexander Bailey describes, Jesuit art commissions “were . . . a partnership in which the artists’ own interpretations of sacred art were encouraged and fostered.” [5]

The Jesuits brought small paintings, prints, and sculptures from Europe for the Indian sculptors to use as models for creating artworks for their missionary enterprise. Prints were the most common European model used in the Goan workshops, due to their low cost and easy transport

In addition to these European models, Goan artisans drew from their own traditions for fashioning images of the divine and architectural forms, as well as their knowledge of sculpting. Round faces and smooth skin, for example, are features set down in the Shilpashastras, ancient texts that address the production of sculpture. Through these influences, the sculptors created works that often exhibit a synthesis of cultural traditions.

The Good Shepherd Rockery

The Christ Child as Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery) from the collection of The Walters Art Museum (accession number 71.324)

The Christ Child as Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery), Indo-Portuguese, ivory, seventeenth century, 17.4 × 6.8 × 5 cm, place of origin: India (Goa) (The Walters Art Museum)

One extraordinary figural type, which stands on its own, and serves as an ideal case study for the ideas addressed above, is the Good Shepherd Rockery (also known as the Good Shepherd Mount or Bom Pastor). It displays the coming together of cultures in both its iconography and its features, encapsulating how Goan sculptors created images of the divine that are Catholic, European, and South Asian. [6]

In this image, the child shepherd sits above an arrangement of rocks with vegetation growing in between the crevices, which are inhabited by various animals. The rocky landscape is similar to a rock garden (rockery). This figural type is unknown previously in Catholic imagery. 

Jesus is seated on a tiered, idyllic landscape and accompanied by sheep. His role as a shepherd is understood by his lamb’s wool coat, the water gourd under his right elbow, the small pouch slung across his shoulders, and the presence of sheep. He would have held a small shepherd’s crook at one time.

Good Shepherd and Baptism (detail), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, c. 275 C.E., white veined marble, found under the floor of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Good Shepherd and Baptism (detail), Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus, c. 275 C.E., white veined marble, found under the floor of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

European, Christian models

The role of Christ as a shepherd is a common motif in Christian art, from its earliest forms to the present day. References to shepherd imagery are found in Ancient Roman catacomb paintings and on marble sarcophagi, such as the Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus. Ancient Roman artisans worked for various clients, including early Christians, contributing to the development of early Christian art. Originally related to Roman religious concepts, various motifs were used by Ancient Roman artisans to visually convey early Christian themes, such as Christ as the Good Shepherd.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 425 C.E., Ravenna (Italy)

Christ as the Good Shepherd, mosaic, inside The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 425 C.E., Ravenna (Italy)

A mosaic in the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy is an especially good example of an early Christian work of art that portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd. He is a youthful, beardless male, sitting on a rocky outcrop amidst an idyllic landscape and surrounded by sheep. His purple robes, cross-shaped staff and large golden halo evoke his divine status. [7]

The Christ Child as Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery) from the collection of The Walters Art Museum (accession number 71.324)

Detail of The Christ Child as Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery), Indo-Portuguese, ivory, seventeenth century, 17.4 × 6.8 × 5 cm, place of origin: India (Goa) (The Walters Art Museum)

Drawing on later European models of this same subject matter—some very similar to the mosaic at Galla Placidia—as well as engravings like those by the Wierix brothers (such as the ones below), the Goan artists created an image that displays variations and subtle changes to the European models. In the ivory statuette Christ is a child accompanied by sheep, which sit on his shoulder and in his lap. Sheep are also found around his seat and on the tiers of the mount. He wears a lamb’s wool coat instead of a robe.  

Left: Jesus Asleep with the Heart Assailed by a Storm Engraving for Cor Iesu Amanti Sacrum Anton Wierix, 1585 – 1586 C. E.; right: The Infant Jesus Blessing Engraving, Hieronymus Wierix, late sixteenth century

Left: Anton Wierix, “Jesus Asleep with the Heart Assailed by a Storm,” engraving for Cor Iesu Amanti Sacrum, 1585–86 C.E.; right: Hieronymus Wierix, The Infant Jesus Blessing, late sixteenth century, engraving,

Other features of the child form can be visually compared to late sixteenth-century engravings, including “Jesus Asleep with the Heart Assailed by a Storm” from the Cor Iesu Amanti Sacrum, created by Anton Wierix, and “The Infant Jesus Blessing” by Hieronymus Wierix. In a similar fashion to the prints, the Goan representation of the Christ Child has short curly hair and his eyes are almost closed. His round head rests on his right hand, which displays the blessing gesture. The facial expression and posture is thought to show that he is contemplating his eventual sacrifice for the sins of humankind.

Krishna, The Butter Thief India, Tamil Nadu, 16th century, copper alloy, 11.43 x 6.98 x 10.16 cm (LACMA)

This image of Krishna shows the god as a child, youthful and playful.  The child form, round face, and smooth skin are features common to images of Baby Krishna, as well as to child-like images of Hindu saints.  These physical traits are also those of the Christ Child of the Rockeries. Krishna, The Butter Thief, India, Tamil Nadu, 16th century, copper alloy, 11.43 x 6.98 x 10.16 cm (LACMA)

Models from India

As noted previously, Goan artisans also drew on models that were familiar to them, such as the divine forms from various Indian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The youthful image of the divine as well as other details are also drawn from Indian source material. The child or youthful form is common for images of the divine in India, as seen in images of Baby Krishna and Hindu saints. These models, their sculpting knowledge, and the use of the Shilpashastras texts were also used to inform the creation of the Indo-Portuguese ivory statuettes. 

Left: Gupta Buddha, 5th century, Sarnath, India (Sarnath Museum); right: Seated Maitreya Bodhisattva, Gandhara, Kushan Dynasty, 1st–3rd centuries C.E. (Tokyo National Museum)

Left: Gupta Buddha, 5th century, Sarnath, India (Sarnath Museum); right: Seated Maitreya Bodhisattva, Kushan Dynasty, 1st–3rd centuries C.E., Gandhara (Tokyo National Museum)

The round shape of the face and the quiet facial expression recall the meditative features of the Buddha, such as that seen on the Gupta Period Seated Buddha from Sarnath. Additionally, the Christ Child sits with his ankles crossed, a common posture that is seen in Gandharan bodhisattva images, and in later Buddhist imagery (much like in a posture of royal ease). 

Sheep serve as companions to Jesus, as adornments, as well as part of the seat on which he sits in the Good Shepherd Rockery. The presence of an animal with the deity brings to mind the animal attributes, the vehicles or vahana, of Hindu gods and goddesses. As Ganesh is accompanied by a rat, as Durga sits upon a tiger, so too the Child Jesus as shepherd is accompanied by his companion sheep.

The Christ Child as Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery) from the collection of The Walters Art Museum (accession number 71.324)

Lower portion of The Christ Child as Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery), Indo-Portuguese, ivory, seventeenth century, place of origin: India (Goa), 17.4 x 6.8 x 5 cm (The Walters Art Museum)

The landscape on which Jesus sits is also subtly changed from the horizontally represented setting seen in European Good Shepherd examples, to a vertical, tiered landscape.  It is more similar to a mountain filled with life.  Saints are also sometimes found in caves around the mount.  For example, Mary Magdalene is commonly depicted, often seen reclining or sitting within a cave at the bottom of the rockery, such as we see on the Walters Art Museum example.
Mahadev Temple, 12th century, Tambdi Surla, Goa (photo: Agtambe1969, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Mahadev Temple, 12th century, Tambdi Surla, Goa (photo: Agtambe1969, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vittala Temple Complex as seen from outside (photo: Amlan Chakraborty, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vitthala temple complex as seen from outside, in the city of Vijayanagara (photo: Amlan Chakraborty, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The mountain-like landscape on which Christ sits is reminiscent of Indian temple superstructures. Goan sculptors would be familiar with the twelfth-century Mahadev Temple in Tambdi Surla, Goa, as well as temples similar to the sixteenth-century Vitthala Temple in Vijayanagara, Karnataka. The towers rise above the temple’s shrine like great, multi-layered, sculptural mountain peaks. In a similar fashion, the tiers and details of the rockery are arranged symmetrically.

In place of architectural features seen on temple superstructures, the mount is filled with flowers, trees, and bushes, animals and birds, which are drawn directly from the flora and fauna of India. Sheep, birds, and other animals drink from fountains and rivers, and eat fruit from trees and bushes. In some rockeries, langur monkeys, wild boar, and black buck inhabit the tiers of the landscape, eating banana plants, pomegranate shrubs, and other flowering and fruiting vegetation. [8]

Devotional objects made whole

Indo-Portuguese ivory statuettes, many of which are now found in museum and private collections, are often incomplete and fragmentary in nature. Single figures, such as the Good Shepherd Rockery, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, and the Madonna of the Immaculate Conception from The Walters Art Museum collection all shown above, are typically all that remain of a once more vibrant, complete devotional object. A base of stylized acanthus leaves or other sculptural forms are missing from most works. Halos, crowns, and staffs made of silver as well as ivory shepherd crooks and flowering tree branches at the sides of the rockeries are now commonly lost to time, though some were also repurposed. Finally, many of these statuettes would have had painted details to accentuate facial features and garments. Others would have been fully painted.

These losses are understood through the few surviving examples that are mostly complete and through the remnants of color in the nooks and crannies of the works.

The Mount of the Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery) from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (accession number A.58-1949). Indo-Portuguese, ivory, ca. 1650, place of origin: India (Goa).

The Mount of the Good Shepherd (Good Shepherd Rockery), Indo-Portuguese, ivory, c. 1650, 43 x 15 cm, place of origin: India (Goa) (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The Mount of the Good Shepherd from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is one of the more spectacular examples of a mostly complete rockery. In this work, the additional ivory pieces are still attached, depicting a flowering tree that surrounds the mount and the figure. With the decorated base of lambs, the full flowering tree surrounding Jesus, and the crooked shepherd’s staff in its rightful place, this rockery is a vision to behold. These accoutrements, along with color, add significance to the image, creating a more complete “picture” of the divine figure. They also provide iconographic details for understanding the intended messages of the piece, which were used for teaching purposes and devotional practice. The possibility of additional parts is important to keep in mind when examining these works of art.

Indo-Portuguese ivories exhibit the coming together of cultures, and the Good Shepherd Rockery figural type perfectly encapsulates how Goan sculptors created images of the divine that are at once Catholic, European, and South Asian.

 

A Note about Ivory

The term “ivory” is used for the teeth or tusks of mammals. For much of human history, it was a common material used for carving objects, for adorning sacred and royal spaces, and for other purposes. At the present time, there are efforts to end the collection and selling of ivory in most parts of the world, especially the tusks of elephants. African elephants, both the Savanna and Forest Species, and Asian elephants are endangered. 

Ivory as a sculptural medium has been used since prehistoric times for carving various types of objects. The tusk of the elephant was a commonly used material for figurines, relief panels, and decorative objects in different parts of the world. In Southern Asia, which includes India and Sri Lanka, the earliest written documentation on ivory dates to around the sixth century B.C.E. [9] Ivory as a medium for sculpture in Southern Asia was at its height of popularity from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. This moment in history coincides with the Portuguese and Spanish conquest. Ivory was a prime commodity. During this time, African elephant ivory came from East African ports, while Asian elephant ivory most likely came from Sri Lanka. [10] However, determining the specific elephant ivory used for a particular object, whether from Asian or African elephants, is difficult to ascertain, and remains a topic of debate among curators and scholars.

Notes: 

[1] For a look at numerous examples of Indo-Portuguese ivory statuettes, see Bernardo Ferrao de Tavares e Tavora’s Imaginaria luso-oriental (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional-Casa  da Moeda, 1983). Rio de Janeiro’s Museu Historico Nacional holds a large collection of  ivory statuettes. These are featured in several exhibit catalogs, one of which is Arte do Marfim (Rio de Janeiro: Museu Historico Nacional, 1993). Most of the ivory statuettes date to the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries. 

[2] Indo-Portuguese is a term used by museums and in scholarship. According to John Irwin, this term came to incorporate three categories of objects: objects produced by Indian craftsmen with Portuguese influence in subject matter, objects made in Portuguese territories by native craftsmen estranged from their social inheritance, and objects made by Portuguese craftsmen based on Indian prototypes. From John Irwin, “Reflections on Indo-Portuguese Art,” Burlington Magazine (December 1955): pp. 386–387.

[3] Margarita Mercedes Estella Marcos, Ivories: From the Far Eastern Provinces of Spain and Portugal, (Monterrey, 1997), p. 170.

[4] For a study of Goan architecture, see works by Carlos de Azevedo, John Correia Afonso, Judilia Nunes, and Jose Pereira. For a more extensive look at Christian art in  India see Christian Themes in Indian Art: From Mogul Times till Today by Anand  Amaladass SJ and Gudrun Lowner (New Delhi: Ajay Kumar Jain for Manohar  Publishers & Distributers, 2012).

[5] Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Between Renaissance and Baroque: Jesuit Art in Rome, 1565–1610 (Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2003), pp. 14–16.  Additional sources on the Jesuits, art, and mission art include Bailey’s Art on the Jesuit  Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542–1773 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,  1999) and John W. O’Malley and Gauvin A. Bailey’s The Jesuits and the Arts, 1540–1773 (Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2005).

[6] Marsha Gail Olson, Jesus, Mary, and All of the Saints: Indo-Portuguese Ivory Statuettes, and Their Role as Mission Art in Seventeenth to Eighteenth Century Goa (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2007), p. 74.

[7] Olson, p. 77.

[8] Olson, pp. 82–86.

[9] Ivory: A History and Collector’s Guide (London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1987), p. 200.

[10] C. R. Boxer, Portuguese India in the Mid-Seventeenth Century (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 42-45.

Cite this page as: Dr. Marsha G. Olson , "Christian art in India: Indo-Portuguese ivory statuettes," in Smarthistory, August 29, 2022, accessed December 10, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/indo-portuguese-ivory-statuettes/.