Tucked away in a quiet road near the majestic Basilica of Bom Jesus is Asia’s first and only Museum of Christian Art.
Inaugurated in 1994 by the then President of India, Shri Shankar Dayal Sharma, the museum, which has enriched the cultural heritage and history of Goa was originally set up at the Seminary of Rachol in Salcette, Goa.
However, for the convenience of the general public and tourist visitors to Goa and with the support of the Archdiocese of Goa, the Museum of Christian Art was relocated to within the precinct of the Convent of Santa Monica, Old Goa, in the vicinity of the World Heritage Monuments. Most tourists only visit the World Heritage Monuments, leaving the few tourists that trickle in to the Museum of Christian Art enough space and time to look around.
I join a few tourists who have managed to make it past the World Heritage Monuments and are walking slowly, almost solemnly, toward the Museum of Christian Art. Before we get there however, we pass by the Convent of Santa Monica.
Th Convent of Santa Monica, built in the year 1627, has considerable architectural and historical significance. The Convent was at one time extremely important on account of royal patronage and was known as the Royal Monastery. I dislodge myself from the group and take a look inside. Past a few scaffoldings, I enter a large Church which is in the process of being restored. As I look around, I come upon an old cross hanging in the centre of the Church. I read a faded inscription next to the cross stating that sometime in the 17th century (I forget the date), this cross actually wept blood. Millions of pilgrims came from all across Goa and South India to witness this miracle. Now the cross hangs forlorn and forgotten in an old Church.
The Museum of Christian Art in Old Goa itself forms the other half of the Church. Thanks to an entrance fee and efforts by the Archdiocese of Goa and the Goa Government, the Museum of Christian Art is much better preserved than the old Church.
The Museum of Christian Art houses a number of beautiful old paintings, sculptures and statues dating back to the early reign of the Portuguese in Goa. However, the Museum of Christian Art is unique in the fact that it houses a selection of objects on display that are the Hindu contribution to Christian Art in Goa and India.
Before visiting the museum, I wasn’t aware that many Hindu artists and artisans were involved in the building and creating of Christian artifacts during the Portuguese colonial rule.
At the time, images and paintings could not be dispatched from Portugal fast enough to meet the rising demand in an increasingly developed Goa. Hence, the Portuguese authorities were forced to use local Hindu artists and artisans to complete this religious work. The permanent requirements of producing images of the myriad of Hindu deities coupled with the existence of hundreds of Hindu temples and shrines in Goa was the shining proof of a well established and highly respected Goan School of Art.
Later, Hindu artists even sold images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and many Christian saints door to door, thus depicting their ability to move from traditional Hindu backgrounds to sophisticated forms of European art steeped in venerable Christian traditions.
The Museum of Christian Art in Goa is thus a unique testimony of the close bonds of interdependence, religious understanding and mutual acceptability between Sacred Christian Art and its traditional Hindu artisans in Goa !
While there is a fair amount of silverware such as crosses, chalices and mass plates, my favourites among the items on display are the richly embroidered priestly gowns and a portable Mass kit for priests who had to travel to distant villages to say mass.