St Aloysius College Chapel in Mangaluru gets its name from St Aloysius Gonzaga and its fame from Antonio Moscheni S J. Brother Moscheni, a native of Italy, was a talented artist and was assigned to paint churches within and outside his country.
With this objective, he came to India in 1899. He completed painting the St Aloysius Chapel in two and a half years. The interiors of this place of worship reveal the magnitude of Moscheni’s achievement. The chapel’s high walls, lofty pillars, imposing arches and vaulted ceilings are almost entirely covered with splendid murals. One needs to spend quality time at the chapel to appreciate the colourful conglomeration. Fortunately, there is a knowledgeable guide, Henry Pereira, who enlightens those who admire the paintings and wish to learn about them. Thanks to his comprehensive commentary, we realise that in addition to depicting saints, scribes and scholars of the Catholic Church, Moscheni has presented two distinct artistic narratives here.
One of these, displayed high on the ceiling of the nave (central part of the chapel), is hard to view. This series of paintings honours Aloysius Gonzaga, who gave up a privileged existence to serve those in need. In the first, he is shown dedicating himself to God and, in another, preaching to the people of his town. An Indian postage stamp, issued in 2001 to commemorate the centenary of these paintings, features the latter scene. Moscheni also portrays Aloysius renouncing his claim to his father’s title. In a particularly poignant picture, the young man is seen helping plague victims in Rome: a selfless act that led to his death at the age of 23.
Events in the life of Jesus Christ are represented so vividly that anyone reasonably conversant with the biblical accounts can follow the incidents. Attention to details marks Moscheni’s paintings. ‘The Wedding at Cana’ is a good example. Preparing to turn water into wine, Jesus stands near the jars into which a boy pours water. The mother of Jesus, who has requested her son’s assistance, waits alongside. Behind them, the bride and groom are seated before platters of food. In the background is a decorated house filled with guests, servants, and musicians. There is even a dog under the table.
This particular painting and all others on the pillars and walls are frescos. A fresco (Italian for ‘fresh’) is painted on newly applied, lime-plaster surfaces with colours made by grinding dry powder pigments. Water aids the pigments to merge with the plaster and, once the plaster sets, the painting becomes part of the wall. This type of painting is ideal for creating huge works of art, and frescos comprise about 600 square metres of the chapel walls. One of the challenges that Moscheni faced was that the paintings had to be finished while the plaster was wet. Adorning the high ceilings posed another problem. Oil paintings on large linen canvases were completed at floor level and hoisted to the top. These cover an area of about 400 square metres and were painstakingly restored in the 1990s.