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Christian Silvered Crab Reliquary of St Francis Xavier

Christian Community, South India or Sri Lanka
19th century

width: 18cm, length: 17.5cm, weight: 748g



from the collection of Sir Christopher Ondaatje, UK.

This fine model of a blue swimmer crab has been cast in bronze and then silvered. Both the top of underside views are startlingly anatomically accurate. The shell is hinged and lifts off to reveal a cavity or interior compartment inside.

Models of crabs such as these were used in Jesuit-linked Christian churches to represent a story about the Spanish saint St Francis Xavier, one of the earliest companions or followers of St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). St Francis sailed for India in the last 15th century and then travelled across Asia over the next eleven years. He also reached Sri Lanka, China, Japan, the Malay Peninsula and also what is today Indonesia. Near the Maluku islands in Eastern Indonesia, St Francis calmed a storm at sea by holding up his cross but then lost it in the waters. Later, when he was walking along a beach, a crab emerged from the waves holding the cross in its claws.

Bennett & Kelty (2014, p. 129) illustrate a similar crab that holds a cross, attributed to 17th century Portugal.

Today, 7.4% of Sri Lanka’s 21.6 million people are Christian and 2.3% of India’s 1.3 billion population are Christian suggesting there are currently 4.6 million Christians in both India and Sri Lanka. Christian populations tend to be found in those areas where there was a strong colonial presence. Madras (Chennai) for example, still has a vibrant Christian population with many churches.

The crab has come from the collection of Sir Christopher Ondaatje, who is of Sinhalese and Dutch ancestry and was born in Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was known) in 1933. A businessman, writer and Olympian, he is the older brother of author Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, among many works.

The crab here is in excellent condition. The interior of the lid has been stamped with the numbers ’33’.


Bennett, J., & R. Kelty, Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2014.

Weereratne, N., Visions of an Island: Rare works from Sri Lanka in the Christopher Ondaatje Collection, Harper Collins, 1999.

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