I know I am saying nothing new but I’m sure it’s possible to spend every day for a year wandering through the Victoria and Albert Museum and still not see more than half the treasures on offer. Aside from the special exhibitions – I’m still grinding my teeth at being there just before the Opus Anglicanum opened – the regular (if such a mundane word can be used) collection is a never-ending source of wonderment.
We had an hour or two between breakfast and our luncheon date with David and Diplomate on that exceptional Sunday back in September and as our walk to the restaurant took us along Cromwell Road we decided to pop in for a look around. I had never been into the Asian galleries and so we headed for the Nehru and adjacent Jameel and Himalayan Rooms on the Ground Floor.
Over the next little while I thought I’d post some of the pictures I took of the remarkable examples of Islamic, Indian and Far Eastern cultures that caught my fancy.
The Mount of the Good Shepherd
Though we tend to think of the Sub-Continent as the Anglo-India of the Maharajahs and the Raj the small state of Goa on the West Coast was under Portuguese rule for over four and a half centuries. In 1510 the Portuguese defeated the ruling Bijapur sultan Yousuf Adil Shah and began an occupation that was not to end until 1961 – a full fourteen years after Great Britain had granted India independence.
At one point in its history Goa’s population was chiefly Roman Catholic and a display in the Nehru Room is dedicated to small but intricately beautiful ivory carvings of that period. Often gilded and polychromed, they were created by unknown Indian artisans steeped in the centuries-old craft of ivory carving.
Though the main thrust of Portuguese colonization was commerce ships bound for the Indes were required by the Padroado with the Holy See to carry missionaries on their voyages. From the earliest days of the occupation the four main missionary Orders (Augustinians, Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans) came with the traders, built churches and worked to bring Catholic Christianity to the Sub-continent. These ivory images were commissioned to help in their evangelical efforts. In an effort to enforce dogma the Church demanded that only baptisted artists could work for churches. However such was the private demand for these ivory statues that unconverted artists had a ready market for export to Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Americas.
What is most remarkable is that despite the control the Church had over the subject the iconography of Indian art found its way into many of the pieces. No where is this more apparent than in carvings of Do Monte do Bom Pastor (The Mount of the Good Shepherd) – a subject that appears to be particular to ecclesiastical art of Goa and that reappeared constantly in the ivories produced there.
The iconography of The Mount of the Good Shepherd is a mix of figures from Christian mythology with animals, plants and flowers of the Sub-Continent. The figures often have an Asian caste to their features and poses are reminiscent of Indian temple carvings. Often Christ the Good Shepherd is shown asleep, recalling images of the Buddha in Indian art. Typically he has a gourd of water on a belt at his waist and he holds a lamb on his lap while another lamb nestles on his shoulder.
There are several other constants in these intricate tiered carvings – a fountain providing life giving water to the sheep and at the base, a jar of ointment beside her, Mary Magdalene, the repentant sinner, reads a book. I was a bit puzzled by that detail but research revealed that in many Medieval and Renaissance depictions the Magdalene, absolved of her past sins, serenely contemplates a book of scripture. Often Saints, particularly those associated with the evangelizing orders, with their attributes are represented in the tiers of the Mount.
The unknown Indian artisans who created these works also made carvings of the Virgin, various saints and canonical scenes but they were often just copies of European models for export and lack any local influence. However the Mount of the Good Shepherd was the perfect representation of the Gospels for the new converts. The symbolism of the Crucifix – a dead body on the cross – was only warily accepted in Indian culture; however the idea of a benevolent Shepherd, like Krishna and Buddha, providing life giving water (the Eucharist) to feed his flock and the natural world reflected the cultural norms for Indians who had turned to the Christian faith.
An devotional image melding the two cultures, the Mount of the Good Shepherd was once the perfect summation of the Catholic faith and the Gospel for India.
On this day in 1675: John Flamsteed is appointed the first Astronomer Royal of England.