The stories of how pieces come into our collection are always interesting, and since it’s the holiday season we wanted to share a story about an ivory sculpture of Christ as the Good Shepherd.
This sculpture is more than a lovely artwork; it is a window into history. It was made some time between 1650 and 1700 in Goa. A number of such statuettes were made during the Portuguese colonial period, when many local people converted to Catholicism, no doubt for a variety of reasons. In other parts of southern India Christianity had had a long history–back, it is said, to the time of the apostle Thomas, who traveled to India in the first century.
The statuette was probably carved by an Indian sculptor trained in Portuguese-related artistic traditions. Christ is shown as a boy tending sheep; in a cave below a woman reclines, reading. She is identified by some as Mary Magdalene, but others believe that she is St Catherine of Alexandria. St Catherine is associated with Goa because it was on her feast day in 1510 that the Portuguese took possession of the city.
Like any other work of art, this little statue is inextricably linked to the events that led to its creation. Some would say it is tainted by colonialism; others that it is important precisely because of its links to events that reach well beyond art, informed by a clash of cultures and an imperialist view of the world that has not entirely disappeared. And of course, Christianity in Goa is not a thing of the past – about 20% of Goans will celebrate Christmas this year.
We acquired this piece at the Arts of Pacific Asia show in February this year through the generosity of Paul and Kathy Bissinger. The Asian Art Museum has a tradition at the show – if one of the curators finds something wonderful, they approach supporters on the spot, hoping to generate enthusiasm for the piece. If we’re lucky, as we were this year, we are able to augment the collection with an important find. Mr. and Mrs. Bissinger write:
We were so pleased that we were able to help the Asian Art Museum fill a gap in its South Asia Collection. Dr. Forrest McGill, whose expert eagle eye first spotted the piece at last year’s APA Gala Opening, was enthralled by its beauty, fine execution and perfect condition. We were easily persuaded to acquire it for the Museum.
We plan to put the newly acquired statuette on display in mid 2012, so you can come in to see it for yourself.
Are there pieces of art that make you reflect on their history? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.