At the Museum of Christian Art (MoCA) in Old Goa, the uppermost floor, once a choir loft, is now a viewing gallery. On one side, you can look down into the museum. On the other, behind a crucifix, you can see the altar of the adjoining church. There are fewer museums in India with a better setting.
Located within the 17th century Convent of Santa Monica on Holy Hill, the MoCA, which attempts to showcase the diversity and richness of Christian art, underwent an extensive facelift from 2017-20. Delayed by the pandemic and funding challenges, it opened its doors this January, with a part of its collection—a rare one dedicated to the Christian art of the region—on display. A formal opening is yet to be scheduled.
The objects in its collection, dating from the 16th-20th centuries, were “designed for religious ceremonies and daily use” and reflect a blend of two art forms that is now recognised as Indo-Portuguese art, says the curator, Natasha Fernandes. The objective is to preserve this form of art and promote further research on it, publishing journals, conducting lectures and seminars.
Spread over nearly 625 sq. m, the museum has more than 200 art objects; it lost five art objects in gold in 2012, during an armed robbery that left a security guard dead. The oldest exhibit is the Chalice and Paten (late 16th century), sacred vessels used in the Communion, while the latest is a model of the tomb of Saint Francis Xavier (1964).
Situated in the heritage district, past the famous Basilica of Bom Jesus, and surrounded by crumbling edifices and the red-coloured ruins of the St Augustine’s Monastery, MoCA’s setting is stunning. Drive under three buttresses and you come to a stone entranceway. A lush garden, with a small café, completes the picture.
The church and the museum share a wall, with a door that leads from one to the other. The museum itself is on two levels; the first floor is essentially a broad corridor that circles the ground floor area and has more art on display. A flight of steps leads to the viewing deck. The compact white-walled room on the ground floor has a curving wooden staircase on the left leading to the upper level that was once a cloister. “When the conservators came to clean, we got scaffolding up for the crucifix. We realised that its halo had slipped behind the back of the image. With the lighting now, it brings the museum to life,” says Fernandes, who has been the curator since 2007.
The collection, grouped according to the material used and arranged in chronological order, includes sculptures, paintings, textiles, jewellery, furniture and stone, wood, metal and ivory items. The museum’s centrepiece, on the ground floor, is the striking Tabernacle monstrance, a 17th century silver sculpture on wood. On a spherical base, symbolising the universe, stands a pelican with open wings, a symbol of parental love. At the base are its two offspring. One side of the room, dedicated to textiles, is yet to be set up. A tiny museum shop under the staircase completes the place.
Across the ground floor, on the wall of the chapel of the Church of Santa Monica, established in the 1600s, is the Miraculous Crucifix. Legend has it that on 8 and 12 February 1636, people witnessed the image of a crucified Christ open his eyes and mouth. They saw blood dripping from the stigmata and the crown quivering.
The first selection of objects for the museum was made in 1994, when the museum was set up in Rachol seminary in the Salcete taluka; it moved to its current site about two decades ago. Churches around Goa, individuals and families have donated the art to the museum, set up by the Archdiocese of Goa in collaboration with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Portugal, and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.
The current upgrade has given the museum a modern, international look. “While the aesthetic was an important aspect of the design,” says Fernandes, “it also incorporated the architectural elements existing within the 17th century building, also keeping in mind the preservation of the museum’s collection.”
The complete installation of objects, says Fernandes, will be done once the pandemic situation improves further. Funding for the restoration, which cost around ₹7.5 crore, came from the Indian and Portuguese ministries of culture, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, companies and individuals from around the world.
Raising funds remains, in fact, their biggest challenge, says Fernandes—particularly to cover operational costs. “We were closed for three years (due to the renovation) and we had no other source of revenue. Now the (restoration) project is over and we have to sustain ourselves,” she says. At ₹50 per person ( ₹20 for students), the entry fee alone will not be enough, she believes.
Nevertheless, the museum’s managing committee is keen to promote it as a knowledge centre. Setting up a conservation centre that goes beyond Christian art, with archives for matters related to Goa, churches and the art of this region, remains a key part of its agenda.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.