A multi-racial pantheon in Portuguese India

From the start of the Portuguese colonisation in the 16th century, the production of religious images made from ivory developed in this "Rome of the East" that was Goa.  This production could be described as proto-industry due to its size.   In effect, we can only be surprised by the abundance of these “Indo-Portuguese” representations which can be found today in museums, at antique dealers and in auction rooms, in Portugal, of course, but also throughout Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic, in Brazil and Mexico.  But what do we understand these Indo-Portuguese images to be? Bernardo Ferrão de Tavares e Távora, one of the first people to have studied them, gave the following definition: "They are sculptures made in Asia by indigenous craftsmen, initially under the aegis of the Portuguese missions, copying Western designs, taking inspiration from them or recreating them with their own variations”. This lead to the creation of multi-racial objects which tell the story of the meeting of two worlds – the Western world and the Asian world.

  • The Good Shepherd

  • Detail of a good shepherd pedestal

  • Detail of a goos shepherd figure

  • The back of the goos shepherd figure

  • Detail of the base of a good shepherd figure

  • The good shepherd

    The good shepherd

  • Two good shepherds

  • Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

  • Detail of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

  • Virgin and Child

  • Virgin of the Immaculta Conception

  • Praying Saint

  • Virgin

  • Virgin and Child

  • Blessing Jesus

  • Baby Jesus, Savior of the World

  • Baby Jesus with skull

  • Baby Jesus

  • Baby Jesus in his bed

  • Christ on the Cross

  • Detail of the Christ on the Cross

  • Detail of Christ from the back

  • Saint Sebastian

  • Detail of Saint Sebastian

  • Saint Francis of Assisi

  • Saint Anthony of Padua

  • Two Pilgrim Saints

  • Small Couple

Detail of a good shepherd figure

Detail of a goos shepherd figure

XVIIe siècle, ivoire, , H : 28 cm, L : 23 cm

The Good Shepherd may be sat either directly on the pedestal (as in the first photo), or on a heart pierced with arrows (as in this model), with his legs crossed Indian-style or dangling.

The primary use of these representations was without doubt religious. These images appear in a specific historical context, that of colonisation and religious conversion. It was necessary for the missionaries to convert the indigenous population, and in their desire for religious proselytism we can imagine that they used this image as an illustrated catechism to teach the local people.

But what would a recently converted Hindu really see in this image? Many hypotheses have been put forward. They may see Buddha, because of the Good Shepherd’s closed eyes and meditative smile. Krishna has also been evoked, one of Vishnu’s avatars, a very popular god in India who appears in one of his most common representations as a teenage shepherd. Therefore, both Krishna and Jesus as good shepherds are two gods who become incarnate as divine shepherds to save the “gentiles” from paganism.

Despite their abundance, these objects raise many questions – uncertain dating, silence about the production workshops or the artists who made them - and the many studies carried out have thrown little light on this subject. But the use of local labour is obvious, and this is confirmed by travellers in their accounts.