Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Itinerant: Saint Christopher’s wardrobe

St. Christopher in the Cathedral in Toledo.
The Cathedral of Toledo, in Spain, hosts on one of its walls a monumental painting of St. Christopher. St. Christopher, legend tells us, started out as Offero, offering his services to people to help ford a river. He remained Offero, until one stormy evening, he forded the river with a child on his shoulders. Particularly insistent on crossing despite the storm, on reaching the other side, the child revealed himself as the infant Jesus and indicated to Offero, that since he had carried Christ that evening, he would hence forth be called Christ-offero.  In offering his shoulders to Christ it turns out, Offero not only gained a name, but provided for the Catholic church, the patron saint of travelers.

The depiction of Christopher in the Cathedral in Toledo wears what medieval depictions of European saints are normally depicted wearing, a long tunic, that is, in the case of Christopher, hitched up at his waist so as to not get too much of the garment wet. The same saint is depicted, on a somewhat smaller scale, but no less dramatically in the Cathedral in Old Goa. This depiction of the saint, at least with respect to his garments differs dramatically from the depiction of Christopher in Toledo.

Detail of the image of St. Christopher in the Se, Old Goa.
This Christopher in Old Goa, hangs immediately to the left of the main entrance of the Cathedral, and has been the subject of some excitement in the field of art history. Amateurs and professionals have pointed out that this St. Christopher wears what some would call a dhoti or a langoti. What is often left out however, is that this is not the only piece of native clothing that the Goan Christopher is wearing. If one looks very closely, one realises that the shirt that Christopher is wearing in this version, has rather peculiar features. It looks akin to the many versions of the Persian jama that filtered into the sub-continent. This shirt, does not boast buttons, but the front of the shirt is held together by knotted strings, just like the many varieties of the jama or angarakha are even today held together.

St. Christopher's wardrobe in Goa

Ibrahim Adil Shah, Sultan of the post Bahmani State of Bijapur
When the art historians realized that St. Christopher in Old Goa was wearing a dhoti, they forwarded the argument that perhaps the artist who painted the image of the saint, was not Catholic, nor European, but a native and a Hindu. In doing so, they seek to stress the Sanskritic nature of pre-Portuguese Goa. If however, we recognize that the garments of the saint are composed of more than just the dhoti, but this jama shirt as well, then our view of the possible identity of the artist must necessarily be complicated. There is no need for us to make the argument that the artist was in fact Muslim. However, we must recognise the fact, that if the artist was in fact native, then the vocabulary of the artist was more than just Sanskritic, but one that was at home with the Persianate and broader Islamicate fashions that had been dominant along the west coast ever since the ascendancy of the Bahmani Sultanates in the Deccan. It points out to us that Goa’s pre-colonial history, and its pre-colonial peoples were a culturally complex lot.

(A version of this post first appeared in The Goan dtd 16 April 2013)

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