Art resurrected

Art resurrected

Forgotten treasures in dusty storerooms come alive as sparkling artefacts at the Museum of Christian Art in Mumbai, writes Giridhar Khasnis

Set within the precincts of St Pius X College at Goregaon (East), Mumbai, the Museum of Christian Art is home to a rich set of time-honoured religious artefacts and memorabilia. Its elegant display of 200-odd objects provides the visitor an opportunity to view and experience a slice of the region’s heritage.

The somewhat restricted space helps bring in greater intimacy and understanding of the collection, and relieves the pressure often imposed by large, overpowering museums.

The museum is the outcome of an initiative by a small but dedicated group of enthusiasts who set upon themselves the task of assembling the archive of antique objects from some unlikely places. Its collection today includes pieces of altars, figurines, pillars, jewellery, crockery, vestments of priests, candle stands, mitres, gold / silver chalices, embroidered old robes, metal crosses, crosiers, church record-books and letters.

Inspired by anecdotes

It was Father Warner D’Souza who, along with a team of professional heritage architects, historians and art restorers, set the ball rolling and carried it through. Recalling the origins of the project, he says that the seed was sown many years ago when he attended a camp and came to know of the many historical anecdotes of Mumbai and the role the Church played in them.

“As a young priest I noticed that a number of our historical churches were already torn down to make way for larger migrating congregations within the city; history was being sacrificed for geography. The economic growth of the Christian community also played a part in this unfolding but tragic destruction of church art and artefacts. New money from the Gulf prompted larger donations to churches and the clamour for the new and shiny grew. Beautiful, gilded Indo-Portuguese retables (derived from the word retro tabula altari or altarpieces behind the altar) were now sacrificed on the altars of modern architectural designs.”

With the backing of the then Archbishop of Mumbai, Cardinal Ivan Dias (who set up the ‘Committee for the Preservation and Promotion for the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church’), Father  Warner seized the initiative and began visiting many churches in Mumbai. “There, in dusty storerooms were treasures of the Church; once gazed upon lovingly by worshippers, they were now seen relegated to the corners and back rooms, covered in dust.”

Today, it would be almost impossible for the museum visitor to imagine that some of the most-prized and sparkling artefacts on display are indeed pieces that had once been discarded as unattractive and unwanted. “Many years ago, a priest, in his eagerness to make space for a growing congregation, asked me to clear the ‘rubbish’ from a storeroom,” reminisces the father. “That ‘rubbish’ now constitutes some of the most beautiful treasures of our museum.”

Among the many objects and artefacts he has collected, Father Warner is particularly fond of a 400-year-old statue of Christ. “Through a tragic series of unfortunate events this statue caught fire on one of the holiest days of Christianity, Good Friday. Seen as an ill omen and fearing divine retribution for possible sins, this burnt and now-dismembered body of Christ was stored away in an attic. A simple cleaning brought this piece to life. With some artistic licence and lots of restoration, the face of Christ now shines once again upon the many visitors. One is actually drawn into the silence and sadness of the artiste who captured the dying moment of Christ in the face that he sculpted,” he says.

There are many others pieces which grab the visitor’s attention. Among them is a gold-plated monstrance, studded with semiprecious stones that came from Our Lady of Hope Cathedral in Bhuleshwar (the cathedral doesn’t exist now). Another interesting piece, the old wooden altar dating back to 1608, and retrieved from the shed of an old church situated at the coast of Manori near Mumbai, has its own story to tell.

The museum, which was inaugurated in September 2011, has attracted considerable attention. “This particular Museum is of a different kind altogether,” wrote an elated reporter of Inside Outside magazine in 2012. “From size to structure and design, this particular one breaks all traditional norms. Take something as conservative and important as Christian art and imagine it in a narrow hallway of acrylic lights and curved walls. But the best part still is... you can touch the display!!!”

Father Warner acknowledges that the museum has been built with toil and tears, and, not to forget, many miracles. He recalls how Mr and Mrs Moorthy, eminent restorers, got associated with the project by a stroke of sheer divine intervention, “in the confessional” of all places! He credits architect Ainsley Lewis for “working magic and designing an amazing modern museum in a limited space”; historians David Cardoz and Fleur D’Souza for “bringing church history alive through months of research”; and Joe Cordo for “giving life to this bygone history in the form of a pictorial timeline.”

Engaging space

Entering the museum, the visitor is at once drawn to the freshness and efficiency of its design. “This interactive museum intends to create awareness within a confined space of an apse, where the artefacts are displayed so as to provide a counterpoint to the whole collection,” says Lewis. Speaking of the unconventional display of artefacts, he is proud that the architectural element not only divides space, segregates the collection and houses artificial diffused light, but also choreographs the movement of the visitor.

For Father Warner, the journey of setting up the museum has had many layers. “Preserving Christian art, or for that matter, historical structures and pieces, is a challenge; sometimes a bit frustrating. The museum was not built to boast; it was built to educate and share both the faith and the need for preserving India’s heritage. Each piece speaks of the collaboration of Indian craftsmen, sometimes about their Portuguese rulers, and the faith of the worshipper.”

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