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

Christ on the Cross

Christ on the Cross

XVIIIe siècle, ivoire, H : 24 cm, L : 23 cm

There are countless representations of Christ on the Cross and they constitute one of the most important subjects of Indo-Portuguese sculpture. This is one of the figures that often appeared in the Calvary. Unfortunately, few survive in their complete form today.

There are several types of ivory (hippopotamus, sperm whale, walrus, etc), but the most noble ivory remains that of the elephant. Although this material existed in India, the ivory used to make sculptures in Goa was imported from the east coast of Africa, from the Sofala region and from the island of Zanzibar, an important area for ivory trade. At the turn of the 15th/16th century, the Dominican Frei João dos Santos wrote Etiopia oriental e varia historia de cousas notaveis do Oriente, which gives us information about the production and exportation of ivory as “the principal merchandise of the Sofala coast, from where very large quantities were sent to India each year”. African elephants had tusks which were larger and of better quality than those in Asia, and so their ivory was extremely sought after. However, other factors were also involved in this choice. In India, elephants were used for work (mainly for transporting wood), and are considered to be sacred animals. One of the most popular gods in India is Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, avatar of Vishnu, which explains the reluctance of the Indians to slaughter elephants.