ANIMALS IN ART
Updated: Oct 6, 2022
When I first came to Goa I would visit the churches in Old Goa, like everyone else. On every visit to the Sé Cathedral, apart from the architecture, the one thing that really fascinated me was the
paintings on one particular arch. This arch is located exactly in front of the statue of St Peter and has
been there ever since I can remember. Do have a look at it when you got there next.
The narrative is of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The paintings are obviously done either by free hand, with
bare fingers or with the use of a very crude brush. There are plants and flowers in this garden and of course there is the figure of a man (Adam) and a woman (Eve) surrounded by animals.
What is completely absorbing in this beautiful, child-like work of art is the rendering of the animals.
There is what looks like a large squirrel. Could it be the Malabar Giant Squirrel? Yes, it could be. There are several birds in the mural. Nothing is as it should be in terms of perspective and size. While one cannot question how Adam and Eve should be drawn, it is interesting that the squirrel is indeed almost twice the size of the human figures! Both the animal and the birds are the ones we normally see in Goa on a good bird-watching day. It is not the customary European version of Paradise but a local Goa version seen through Goan eyes.
I was then, as I still am, also fascinated with the choice of colour. They are obviously natural
pigments since chemical colours were only made in 1856. This art is much older, probably dating to the 17 th century. The range of colours used is limited to black from charcoal; reddish brown from soil and green from some botanical extract. The use of pink in 17 th century art has largely gone unnoticed by me until I attended a talk the other day at the Sunapranta by Georgetown University scholar Dale Luis Menezes. Thank you, Dale for helping us join the dots. And, for showing us that these dots are
pink. Apparently, the use of pink, from the cochineal pigment, was popular in Moghul art and that in turn had a considerable influence on Christian art. The Garden of Eden has flowers in pink and red. Red came from finely sieved red soil and from turmeric, a commonly grown condiment in Goa. All in all, the murals in the arch go largely unnoticed but are, in fact, the most original of all the renderings at the Cathedral.
One of the things that most frustrates you when you see ancient art like this on the walls of a cathedral, church, chapel, temple or home is that it is completely anonymous. There is never any name of the artist or artists. Of course! How can we even expect that there would be a name of the artist? These works of art were done as dedications, as offerings to the Almighty, to God and to Nature. The ego, ahankara, is set aside when one is in the service of the Lord and one’s name is the first tangible emblem of the ego. Hence, the putting aside of the ego. Hence, the work of art without a signature, a name. So, now we have a new nomenclature for the art we see in architecture.
Besides calling it architectural art, we could also call it anonymous art.
Let us travel from the arch in the Garden of Eden at the Cathedral and move into the hushed halls of the Convent of Santa Monica, also in Old Goa. Not everyone is privy to the Convent, even though it is no longer a cloistered Convent that once housed 100 nuns and over 250 women in residence. This is Goa’s best kept art secret. There are murals on the walls, in the chapels (3 out of the 11 that survive) and on the ceilings. There are narratives from the Scriptures and then there are floral renderings. In one niche of the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, however, you see a signature that is not a signature.
This signature that is not a signature is really as if the same artist who painted the child-like drawings at the Cathedral was also the artist (or artists?) at the Chapel. You can call it a signature style. What is the giveaway? It is the use of the materials, the child-like renderings and the anthropomorphic expressions on the faces of the animals and birds painted at both places. Here’s my theory and the cause of my missing a heartbeat. I think it is an artist who has used the nearest and most easily available materials for the art.
The nuns in the Convent were avid gardeners. That is a certainty. They grew their own vegetables and used the courtyard in the Convent for growing herbs and other things that they needed. They were also quite knowledgeable about botany as we can see from the botanical specimens (with their Latin names) sketched on the walls of the Chapel. So, someone knew how to use the soil and the plant material available for painting and sketching as well. The black that you see is obviously charcoal. It was probably taken from the wood fired stoves of which there were plenty in the refectory and the bathing cubicles.
The pink came from cochineal that was used generously to colour food and could then be used generously for the art. That is why the cardinals (birds) have been rendered in the rich pink pigment that was so readily available. The use of cochineal is entirely synthetic now but there was a time when the cochineal insects were boiled and the dye extracted from the insects. It was used to colour food and also as a medicine. Now turmeric was also used to bring out the red or deep rich pink. You can do this yourself! Take some turmeric and add baking soda and water. Heat it till it turns red. If it does not turn the shade you need, add a little more water and apply more heat. You’ve got red dye.
Both these ingredients were easily available as well.
Now if one assumes that it was a nun in the Convent who painted the animals and birds in the Trinity Chapel then who was it who painted the Garden of Eden? If it was the same person or persons then that begs a question. Were some cloistered nuns taken to the Cathedral for the art work? Or, did the artist from the Cathedral come into the Convent to work on the Chapel?
Now it is not as if this kind of art is only found in the churches and chapels of Goa. The renderings at the Pai Raikar House at Savoi Verem are astounding in their exactness. They could have been done for a book on Birds of Goa! They are so realistic and could have only been done by an artist who was also an avid birdwatcher. Who was the artist? Someone who helped the performers on stage do their hair, costume and make up? Someone who was a performer himself? That is the irritating thing about new findings. You just end up with more questions.