04 Nov 2023  |   05:03am IST

Unveiling the Wonders of the Modo Goano

Unveiling the Wonders of the Modo Goano

Vivek Menezes


ontroversy overwhelms all public conversations about the oft-violent and coercive processes by which the majority of “natives” in the Estado da Índia became Catholic in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the truth is conversion worked in both directions. Portugal and Europe – and indeed the “New World” in the Americas – were dramatically transformed after “the west” co-mingled with “the east” in our ancient entrepôt on the Mandovi river, where the city we call Old Goa exploded to twice the size of contemporary London within decades of Alfonso de Albuquerque’s victory in 1510. That extraordinary cultural history is the main subject of David de Souza’s stunning, state-of-the-art photographic archive in The Jesuits, Goa and the Arts,

newly published by the Xavier Centre of Historical Research and edited by Rinald D’Souza and Anthony da Silva.

This is an expensive book with the cover price of Rs 4300, and I was grateful to receive a review copy because the images are instantly invaluable, the best ever published of some of the greatest works of religious art ever made, and painstakingly compiled by an exceptionally meticulous photographer (see daviddesouza.com). Here is the history of the East-West encounter wrought in silver, carved in teak and inlaid with ivory, as Christianity was adroitly converted into an Indian religion. This is the Modo Goano, described by the historian Cristina Osswald as “applying to the unique characteristics embodied by the buildings and art of this region.”

Osswald’s essay in the new book summarizes her excellent 2013 book Written in Stone (Goa 1556) in which the architectural historian António Nunes Pereira wrote this relevant preliminary note: “if the Jesuits in Europe were puritanically investing in the spiritual content of the spoken word as a means of battling the Reformation, in the Orient they felt compelled to work on the level of the senses.” This initiated another remaking, as Pereira points out: “we know, from the end of the 16th century, Jesuit and European art also became very fully sensuous and made an extraordinary contribution to the Baroque. We might ask ourselves, in what way did the Oriental experience – and not so much the other way round – influence Jesuit art and communication concepts in Europe? I believe that this history is still unwritten.”

Unfortunately, that history remains unwritten. Nonetheless, thanks to David de Souza and XCHR, we can experience it breathing through the objects of the times, brought up close like never before. The impact is awe-inspiring, especially those photographed in situ, where they continue in service of the unbroken civilizational strand of the Goan communities which originally commissioned them. The late architectural historian Paulo Varela Gomes explained so well in his 2011 book Whitewash, Red Stone how the Modo Goano “has generally been explained with the concept of ‘encounter’ between East and West [but] this explanation, as all others based on ‘influences’ and ‘contacts’ fails to account for the character and integrity” of Goan [art].” In fact, “their builders and patrons knew how they wanted it to look and how they wanted it to be experienced. To anyone with architectural or artistic sensitivity, these don’t seem to be the end-result of a compromise, but the affirmative artistic statement of a cultural position.”

That world view is analysed usefully in The Jesuits, Goa and the Arts by the art historian Mónica Esteves Reis: “In every successive historical layer, Goa’s society shifted and ‘shared’ diverse cultures, practices, and experiences by creating an identity of its own showing there are no full stops in history, only long continuities.” She says “that makes today’s Goa unique. However, it has yet to see the full recognition of its heritage layers due to numerous factors, mostly arising from its internal politics. Although heritage, at an intangible level, lives to tell this story, its material culture continues to face a significant risk of destruction and total disappearance.”

What does David de Souza think, after chasing down this material culture for almost two years? When I emailed him that question, the Moira-based photographer responded promptly: “The pearl of great price exists in our back yard. When you look at Europe, all their treasures are spread out over the continent. That all these distinct masterpieces exist in a small radius in Goa is overwhelming. The revolving tabernacle with the life of Christ painted on it in Azossim is one of a kind in the world. It’s beautifully preserved, largely because the wood has swollen and stuck, so it has not been rotated for a long while. I feel that a protocol should be observed when rotating it in the future, or it will be damaged.”

There are many important objects and locations we get to examine anew in The Jesuits, Goa and the Arts but what stopped me in my tracks was the silver casket of St Francis Xavier at Bom Jesus. The usual vantage is from way below, where everything is inadequately illuminated even at mid-day. But now every detail of this incredible composite artwork can be seen properly: the intricate silver casket made in India, with an elaborate pedestal altar rendered by the Florentine engraver Giovanni Battista Foggini (it was donated by Cosimo III de’Medici), surrounded on all sides by what Osswald calls “a unique and amazing visual compendium.”

De Souza told me “the SFX casket is of course the most significant part of the Basilica. It had been recently restored and I had to get to eye level with it, using a ladder. It is a very tight space, and getting strobes (flashes) with modifiers in there to make the ‘plates’ appear 3D meant lighting them in a certain way. I don’t want to get too technical, but I have photographed many churches before in Mumbai where there is bas relief, and the experience of making those come alive helped. However, at 70 years of age, hanging from a rickety ladder is not what my insurance company advises. In addition, all the churches in Goa use ‘mixed’ lighting, which is white/yellow light and in many cases, tube lights which show up with a green cast in photos, (discontinuous spectrum, minus magenta). For photography to appear without a ‘cast’, it’s imperative to use a light source that matches daylight in this case, so the outside and inside balance out. That’s what I had to do.”


Iddhar Udhar