28 Mar 2021  |   05:26am IST


Over the last four months, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) along with the Basilica of Bom Jesus, put in herculean efforts to restore the iconic Mastrillian Casket which contains the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier that is kept at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The process to commence all this work was initiated by the Rector of the Basilica Fr Patricio Fernandes sj, who shares the story about the entire experience to KARSTEN MIRANDA

The prophet Isaiah said, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light…(9;1)”. 

Any encounter with St Francis Xavier either at the Basilica or through visuals - real or imagined, has often evoked in most people, an experience of movement from darkness into light. Their prayers are heard and requests granted. 

But the questions that puzzled many people who visited the Holy Relics of the Saint were about why the silver casket is so dark. 

It is to be noted that the Silver Casket containing the relics of St Francis Xavier was brought in procession from St Paul’s College on February 19, 1624, to the Basilica of Bom Jesus, two years after he was declared saint and Goencho Saib. Fr Marcello Mastrilli, who miraculously revived from death through the intercession of St Francis Xavier, came to Goa in December 1635 on his way to Japan. Upon seeing the Silver Casket, he ordered a new silver covering for the coffin which was completed in time for the feast on December 2, 1637. The Mausoleum was placed in St Francis Xavier Chapel on November 8, 1698 and on top of it, was placed the Mastrillian Casket. Because of this special attraction that year, thousands of pilgrims flocked to the feast on December 3, 1698. Since then, nothing much is documented about the conservation or restoration of the Mastrillian Casket.

Following the efforts and initiatives of Rev Fr Patricio sj, Rector, Basilica of Bom Jesus, a process to protect the monuments was initiated.

Small steps

By mid-June 2017, the reliquary containing the toe of St Francis Xavier was taken up as a small step to figure out how to tackle the cleaning up of the big casket. It was shining bright and appreciated. This led to cleaning up the stars and finally the silver statue of St Francis Xavier.

Giant leap

While speculating about how the casket should be handled, a reference was made about how in the year 1996, the Italians had worked on the Mausoleum. Based on that suggestion, Guala Closures, an Italian company in Goa, in communication with the Basilica, took the initiative and connected with Conservation Company in Florence and sponsored their team to assess the Mausoleum and the Casket in May 2018. Their analysis further suggested that the Casket was in grave danger and needed immediate attention or else it would fall apart within the next 10 years. They also proposed an arrangement wherein, should the Basilica take care of the transportation and other formalities; they would return it after working in their workshop for a year with the entire casket completely restored. 

Awakened Awareness

At a meeting with the Italian team and representatives of the Archdiocese, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), architects, conservators, engineers and concerned citizens, they shared their findings and proposed the way ahead. Since the ASI had already sent Queen Ketavan’s remains to Georgia, they were willing to do the formalities to send the Casket to Italy. The news of the casket travelling to Italy was flashed out in all the papers and it was the talk of the town. That process did not take off because ASI Dehradun objected to it and confirmed that the ASI Chemical Branch Aurangabad was capable of handling the project.

Something better than nothing

The excellent work done by the Italian team was foremost in mind when relenting to what has been observed as the modus operandi of the ASI in taking up ordinary jobs and not doing a thorough work of conservation and restoration. Time changed the perspective and a willingness to settle for whatever would happen rather than having nothing done professionally by the Basilica. COVID-19 delayed the work that would have been done earlier on the casket.

From cooperation to collaboration

Correspondence with the ASI chemical branch and meeting with the chief chemist Shrikant Misra (Deputy Superintending Archaeological Chemist, Western Zone, Aurangabad), geared the Basilica to cooperate with the best. According to the Fr Patricio, Misra was a gentleman who had vast practical experience of working with international chemical conservators. With each meeting the ground was ready for a collaborative effort to do the best for the world renowned Mastrillian Casket that is second best to the Taj Mahal. A chemical branch team began by taking pictures of the casket to assess its condition. They shared these pictures and followed up with an analysis of the elements which make up the casket. 

Bracing up for the challenge

Several experts, conservators, the Archbishop’s representatives, concerned citizens and Jesuits had a meeting with Misra and his team to clarify his professional way of attending to such a precious heritage masterpiece. After much clarification, all decided that we shall positively face the challenge. They got the best fabric – pink velvet and white base cloth that was to be replaced for the old on the casket. The rooms were cleared up for the mini-lab and 16 CCTV cameras were fixed all around to monitor the process. 

D-Day of the Restoration

The ASI had already been assigned the project by their headquarters in Dehradun and Delhi who had given them a go ahead. A timeline was fixed and it would be the responsibility of the Chemical Branch itself to carry out the restoration of the Mastrillian Casket. The deadline for the project was finalised and it had to finish by the financial year 2021. Together with the Rector of the Basilica it was finalised that on December 10, 2020 the project would commence.

Stages of the process of the operation

The COVID-style novena and feast of St Francis Xavier was celebrated with no big pandals or big cues for veneration. Instead, the services were held inside the Basilica after many years. The masses were in the mornings 6 am till 8.30 am. Then from 9 am till 5 pm were cues of pilgrims and tourists for veneration of the Relics of St Francis Xavier. The immediate preparations for lowering the body and the casket were underway. The materials, the set-up, the cameras, etc. were all in place.

Lowering the Relics of St Francis Xavier

At sharp 5pm on December 9, 2020, the Rector began with prayers asking God to ‘bestow on us His Spirit to conduct the entire operation in a smooth way with no difficulties to block the entire process’. 

Thereafter, a discussion was held wherein it was clarified as to what role each one had to play in terms of carrying out the specific work assigned to them. There was even a dress code for those bringing down the sacred body of St Francis Xavier. The entire operation was carried out in an atmosphere of prayer while the members had to work in silence. After the Relics were brought down, prayers were offered, and it was taken to the sacristy. There too other prayers were being said. 

Bringing down the Mastrillian Casket

Scaffolding had to be set up to bring down the casket from the top of the Mausoleum. It took nearly the whole day to set up the scaffolding. On December 11, the casket was lowered in 5 parts. The Cross, the portion holding the Cross and then the part above the relic section were brought down in the evening. However, according to the Rector, the entire operation was not well planned by the ASI. There were altercations and pacifications. That night there were signs and portents in the sky. Torrential rains and winds that made all feel the intervention of St Francis Xavier. On December 12, the relic section and then the portion below it, namely the base was brought down. The scaffolding was not well thought out and it was un-sturdy. It took a long time to lower the entire part of the casket. The scaffolding had to be dismantled. 

Placing back the Relics for veneration 

On December 12 evening, the Sacred Relics were kept back in an Italian casket which was brought in 1954. 

Fumigation of the Casket

The work commenced at 9.15 am on December 14, 2020. Pictures of the Casket were taken. Carpenters arrived by 9.52 am for setting up of the fumigation chamber, required to fumigate the casket. Fumigation chamber was blessed by Fr Patricio at 12.40 pm and was followed by transferring of the casket into the chamber at 1.00 pm. The chamber was sealed completely by 1.51 pm and gas was released into the chamber at 2.20 pm. Fumigation was carried out for 2 days. On December 16, 2020 degassing of the fumigation chamber commenced at 9.45 am. Weighing of different fragments of the casket was carried out post lunch, which was followed by photography of the casket The entire casket was divided into part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5, so as to facilitate working. 

ASI Chemical Scientific Branch Team

From December 17 2020 onwards, chemical cleaning of the casket was initiated. Chemical cleaning of silver was carried out by immersion of the silver into a solution. After soaking for about a day, the silver was washed with water and scrubbed. The cleaned silver was dried and given a single coat of solution, which was meant to protect it from oxidation. This procedure was used for cleaning the silver all the days. 

Monitoring and intervention team

A monitoring team constantly kept vigil to observe all that the chemical team was doing and to intervene when necessary. While one was at the CCTV cameras, the other was always with the team to observe and record what was developing daily. 

Steps in the process of restoring the casket

The specific area was photographed and at times sketched. The chemical treatment was done by soaking, brushing, drying and coating of the silver frames or towers. Finally it was placed above the velvet cloth which was above the white cloth and this was fixed to the wooden frame. 

Photographers and Artists

The official photographer of the ASI and a sketch artist documented all the articles of the casket before and after the restoration work. The Basilica also had their photographer who did the same for the frames of the casket before and after restoration.  

Goldsmiths and carpenters 

The goldsmith, tailor and carpenter hired by the ASI were locals who had no background in conservation/restoration or of art/antiques.

Visit of the Director of Chemical Branch and his team

At some point in time, the ASI officials from Dehradun and Delhi visited the Basilica to inspect the work carried out on the casket. They were very cordial and ready to go an extra mile in restoring the casket. The ASI Goa Circle Superintendent also inspected the work carried on by the Chemical Branch and extended his support.

Masonry and carpentry work in the Mausoleum

As the work on the casket was coming to a close, the work on the Mausoleum had to be addressed. It was observed that the wooden beams that support the frame, which supports the entire casket with the sacred relics, were partially attacked by termites. Besides, some of the lintels inside the mausoleum were also eaten up by white ants. These were replaced by stone lintels. The wooden beams were supported by other ‘matti’ wooden beams and a vertical beam to support the new replacements. The inside walls were cleaned by the ASI Goa circle and the debris kept aside for inspection. Then it was plastered in parts with lime plaster done by the ASI, which was corroborated with pure lime from shells to make it last against the termites. This work was done by a carpenter who collaborated with the Basilica in restoring the Mausoleum. He also did the new platform for holding the casket and the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier. He considered it a privilege to work for St Francis Xavier and experienced blessings for those he prayed for. 

The final touches

From March 13, 2021 the final touches were given to every part of the Casket. And wherever possible, the goldsmith restored damaged silver and made a few new parts which were required in certain places. Not all was taken up by the ASI, in which place the Basilica intervened. Towards the end, lots of lessons were learnt and these can be implemented in the future.

Light that shines in the darkness

“When the spirit of a person is centred on God, it begins to glow and darkness is dispelled within and outside a person. That is the story of St Francis Xavier. He moved us all to address the darkened casket and working together it has begun to shine with his presence,” said Fr Patricio. 

Placing the casket on top

Trussing and not scaffoldings was used in the final stage of placing the casket on top of the mausoleum. According to Fr Patricio, this was very easy, smooth and decent. 

Lowering the sacred relics

On March 12, evening the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier were brought down accompanied by prayer and with fewer persons to handle the situation. Everything was done peacefully and devoutly. The chapel was covered with a curtain from top to down and a beautiful picture of St Francis Xavier was placed in front of the South Chapel till all the work was accomplished inside the mausoleum.

Reverse movements of casket parts

On March 21, at 3 pm prayers were offered in gratitude and thanks to the Father and to St Francis Xavier for safely taking the ASI team and the Basilica Collaborators the restoration process. The reverse pattern of keeping back the restored casket was followed. First, the new special wooden platform was placed on the wooden beams of the mausoleum. Then, it was the turn of the frame which holds the entire Mastrillian casket. Each of the five parts were taken up and fitted together and the entire casket was ready to receive the relics of St Francis Xavier.

St. Francis Xavier, the light that glows

After a prayerful moment with St Francis Xavier, the body was carried from the sacristy by several appointed members back to the Casket in five stages. From the sacristy to the platform, to the window to the upper platform, and then finally into the casket. “We ended with prayers in thanksgiving for the entire process. Gold glows by itself but silver grows dull with reaction to the externals elements. It has to be constantly kept clean. So it was with St Francis Xavier, he constantly kept clean in his soul through contact with God in prayer and that’s the reason he is the light that dispels the darkness within himself and in whosoever he comes in contact,” Fr Patricio added. 

Measures to maintain the Mastrillian Casket

a.     ASI chemical branch envisages a periodic half-yearly dusting of the casket. 

b.    They have promised to put air-filters and other measures to keep dust off from covering the casket. 

“The question that sparked the desire to change the darkened silver casket has in four years been collaboratively accomplished by the chemical branch of the ASI and the Basilica team. Now the Mastrillian casket is truly shining bright. May every person who visits the Basilica have a similar kind of experience of encountering the presence of St Francis Xavier which will spark in them a movement from darkness into light,” Fr Patricio concluded.