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Portuguese Colonial Ivory Jesus on the Cross

Portuguese Goa, India
17th-18th century

crucifix - height: 82cm, width: 35cm; ivory figure - height: 18cm, width: 15cm



UK art market.

This stunning Baroque ivory carving of the agonizing Jesus on the Cross is typical of Indian Christian ivory work, although stylistically it is a relatively rare form of Jesus. (A similar example is illustrated inde Goa a Lisboa,1991, p. 40. A related version also can be seen in the apex of the high altar of Goa’s Nossa Senhora Mae de Deus – ‘Our Lady Mother of God’ Church, illustrated in Pereira, 1995, plate 2.)

The body of the image is finely and naturalistically rendered with close attention paid to the anatomical features such as the rib cage, the knees, the abdomen and the veins in both arms. The head leans slightly to the figure’s right. The eyes are closed and the expression is forlorn and exhausted. Christ’s right foot is crucified over the left. The image’s fingers are intact and remarkably delicate. Red polychrome has been used to denote blood: droplets of blood trickle from the image’s forehead, from a gash in the chest’s right side and from the knees which also have been carefully coloured blue about them to suggest bruising. The veins in the arms also have red polychrome highlights. The hair which falls in ringlets over both shoulders has been coloured dark brown as has the beard, the eyebrows and the eyelashes. A copious loin cloth has been folded over double and its crenulated edges retain a measure of the original gilding.

The nails driven through the ivory Christ’s palms and feet are of silver and are in fact screws that hold the image to the crucifix. They have hand-cut silver nuts visible on the reverse of the cross.

The crucifix of carved, ebonised rosewood with gilded trimmings and a repoussed silver plaque all are original to the piece. The silver plaque is typically Goan, thereby providing an example of early Indian Christian silverwork, as well as the woodwork and ivory (see De Goa a Lisboa, 1991, p. 45 for a related example of silverwork.) Overall, the crucifix is a typically Baroque confection with its elaborate gilding and intricately carved base.

The silver plaque is repoussed with the letters ‘INRI’, which, in Latin stand for ‘Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum’ or ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews (Judeans)’.

The crucifix most probably was designed to be mounted on a wall but it is also visually dramatic as a free standing artwork.

Christian ivories from India such as this example made their way as direct imports to Europe, particularly Spain and Portugal, where they entered the treasuries of churches and monasteries. Others were sent to Spain and Portugal’s dominions such as Mexico and the Philippines from where they might also have been exported to Europe. Others still entered aristocratic collections and European cabinets of curiosities as curios and collector’s pieces. Juana de Cordoba y Aragon, the Duchess of Frias, is known to have owned around fifty such pieces in 1604 (Trusted, 2007).

Goa had a fractious history before coming under Portuguese control. It came under the governance of the Delhi Sultanate in 1312. But the Sultanate’s hold over the region was weak. By 1370, the region was surrendered to the Vijayanagara empire. The Vijayanagara monarchs held the territory until 1469, when it fell to the Bahmani sultans of Gulbarga. With the fall of that dynasty, the area fell to the Adil Shahis of Bijapur who established as their auxiliary capital the city known under the Portuguese as Velha Goa. In 1510, the Portuguese defeated the ruling Bijapur kings with the help of a local ally, Timayya. They founded a permanent settlement in Velha Goa (Old Goa). With the Portuguese, came Christianity. From the sixteenth century, Goa which formerly had been a remote province on the periphery of kingdoms, became an eastern trading capital of the Portuguese empire and the seat of Christian imperialism and influence whose influence stretched from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Japan.

The Portuguese expanded their possessions around the region so that by mid-18th century the area under occupation included most of Goa’s present day state limits. In 1843 the capital was moved to Panjim from Velha Goa.

After India gained independence in 1947, Portugal refused to negotiate with India on the transfer of sovereignty of its Indian enclaves. In December 1961, the Indian army annexed Goa and several smaller Portuguese possessions, ending Portugal’s 400 year presence in the Indian sub-continent.

Many Goans converted to Christianity under the Portuguese. Local religious art developed syncreatic elements: it was predominantly Christian but incorporated Hindu Indian influences. The Jesuits played a critical role in Goa: Francis Xavier, the Spanish-born pioneering Roman Catholic and co-founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) was ordered by Ignatius Loyola, the principal founder of the Jesuits, on behalf of the Portuguese king to undertake a mission to the Portuguese East Indies. The king had become concerned that Christian values in the possessions had become deteriorated. Xavier left Lisbon in April 1541, and after first visiting Mozambique he reached Goa in May 1542, where he spent the next three years strengthening the position of the Church. Thereafter, the Jesuits played a key role in developing the Church’s infrastructure in Goa: churches, monasteries and Catholic schools were built.

This carved ivory image is an excellent and increasingly scarce reminder of India’s complex, mixed heritage but also of a time when Portugal was a great seafaring and trading nation – a reminder that globalisation is hardly a new concept.

A very similar ivory Jesus without a crucifix in the Museum of Sacred Art of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and illustrated in Brazilian Baroque(1973, pl. 51). The positioning of the head is similar, the polychrome colouring of the ivory also is similar, as are the prominent veins in the arms and the crenulated edging of the loin cloth. All this points to a Goan origin rather than the piece being indigenous to Brazil. This should not be surprising. As mentioned, Christian ivories from Goa were exported to Portugal’s other colonies in South America, Asia and to Portugal itself.

The condition of this piece is very good particularly given its size and age. There are some minor losses to the wooden elements of the crucifix, and some minor loss to the silver plaque. The only loss to the ivory image is to part of the image’s left foot but the left foot is beneath the right foot and so the loss is obscured. Overall, these are to be expected and are acceptable given the overall splendour of this piece.


Brazilian Baroque: Decorative and Religious Objects of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century, from the Museum of Sacred Art of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Governo do Estado de Sao Paulo, 1972.

De Goa a Lisboa: L’Art Indo-Portugais XVI-XVIII Siecles, Europalia Portugal, 1991.

Peereira, J., Baroque Goa, Books & Books, 1995.

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