Antique Image of St. Francis Xavier
Item No. 9577
Late 19th Century, N/A, India
Wood with Polychrome
22" x 7.5" x 7.5"
( 55.88 x 19.05 x 19.05 cm)
(H x W x D)
This statue of St. Francis Xavier preaching was probably from a home or a religious setting in the Portuguese-Indian city of Kerala in South India. It may have been placed in a specific niche, although, unlike statues placed in niches, the figure is modeled and painted to be viewed on the back as well as the front.
Christianity has had a long and involved history in India. It was introduced by St. Thomas the Apostle, who is believed to have landed at Malankara in Kerala, South India in 52 A.D. He converted many caste Hindus and established a Christian tradition which integrated many Hindu traditions. Belief in the divinity of Jesus was melded with belief in karma, reincarnation, prasad (making food offerings, generally plates of fruits, to a deity) and the lighting of lamps. Since St. Thomas came from Syria, these early converts were called Syrian Christians who claim to follow the earliest traditions of the Apostolic Church in India and use the Cyriac language in their services.
In 1510 Portuguese missionaries arrived in Kerala and built its first Christian church. They consciously attempted to minimize Hindu influence in the Church and in 1599, eliminated Indian elements altogether and introduced the Latin rites of Roman Catholicism even though not all Kerala Christians chose to give allegiance to the Pope. Since they conducted services in Latin, Portuguese converts were called Latin Christians.
Church language became a major issue in the Churches in Southern India during the 19th century when the Syrian Christians split over the official use of language in the church. One faction retained the Cyriac language and the other changed to Malayalam and is called Marthoma Syrian Christians. In the early 20th century, the British established the Anglican Church to which the Churches of North and South India are aligned.
St. Francis Xavier was a significant figure in the spread of Christianity in Asia, especially in India. A man of remarkable energy and organizational ability, Francis Xavier was one of the first Jesuit missionaries and one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the church. In 1510 Goa was established as the capital of the Portuguese maritime empire. When the Pope sought to convert Indian populations en masse, the city became a hub of Jesuit missionary activity. Jesuit St. Francis Xavier was sent on this mission in 1542 and made Goa his headquarters. He met with great success in the five months he spent there and later extended his work throughout Southern India and Ceylon. He initiated widespread changes including the introduction of printing. When Jesuit Missionaries were bringing a printing press to Abysian to spread Christianity, he convinced them to stay in Goa with the press which St. Francis Xavier later used to print Doctrina Christa, a catechism used to teach children at Jesuit schools and colleges. He was canonized in 1622.
In this sculpture, St. Francis Xavier is dressed in attire which is a blend of traditional Western priest's vestments and Indian attire. He wears a loose fitting pink garment with a round collar which falls to the tips of his shoes. A long brown and gold scarf extends over his left shoulder and down the front of his garment in cascading folds. The collar, sleeves and hem of the undergarment as well as the hem of the scarf are decorated with a brown border. In his left hand he holds a bible which he was instrumental in having printed in Asia and which was used to disseminate the concepts of Christianity throughout Asia. His right hand probably originally held a plain black cross. He stands on a two tier round pedestal base.
Kerala churches are painted in bright colors, and have integrated architectural styles from the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. Catholic churches are decorated lavishly with statues, paintings and pictorial representations covering much of the interior including the ceilings and aisles. Statues such as this one of St. Francis, also in bright colors, were often placed in niches in these Churches.
In this image, St.Francis' is represented as a blend of spiritual and humanistic compassion. The carving reflects an integration of western art traditions probably from Portugal, which sent Christian missionaries to Kerala in the 16th century, with the indigenous Indian traditions of South India. The iconography and stance of the statue is Western, while the more stocky appearance of Jesus, especially in the neck, reflects the influence of Indian tradition. Statues like this one were usually carved locally by highly skilled and talented craftsmen-artists who also did exemplary work for Hindu, Jain and Buddhist clientele, and such statues were certainly done with the visual aid of examples brought with the missionaries from Europe, both carvings and paintings.
St. Francis Xavier, Catholic Encyclopedia, www.newasdvent.com.
Patron Saints Index: Saint Francis Xavier, www. Catholicforum.com.