Friday, May 21, 2010

A saint for the East or the Portuguese expansion into the East?

After many years of Jesuit training, I took as a matter of faith that Francis Xavier was the first multi-cultural saint, having spent 11 of his 46 short years in the East. Nothing could be farther from the truth. His mission was closely tied to the Portuguese colonization of India, begun in 1498 by Vasco da Gama. Xavier arrived in Goa on May 6th 1542 along with Portuguese explorers, seamen, soldiers, and merchants—the first or second wave of occupiers. As Jesuit he vowed to spread the gospel of Jesus, but he was fully aligned with the European/Portuguese plans to dominate the East which creates a messy picture.

The history of any revolution or period of innovation is hard to read. I am skeptical of any authorized version, particularly a story of the human and divine interacting. Though the Roman church and the Jesuits insist that Jesus came to save all humankind regardless of race, or language, or tradition, when I look at the cultural artifacts of Xavier's mission, the architecture and iconography, I see a different story.

Portuguese governance of the territories they occupied in India lasted from 1505 through 1947. After Ghandi these scattered costal enclaves, known as Portuguese India, or Goa in popular parlance, began to be taken over by India. The pace accelerated in 1954, when peaceful Satyagrahis attempts at forcing the Portuguese to leave were brutally suppressed.

This is a postcard commemorating the Saint issued by Portuguese India in 1946, a year before Indian independence.

The following images are presented as evidence that Xavier was, and is still, a very European saint. The photographs are of Bom Jesu, 1695 C.E., and the Se Cathedral in Old Goa. (Photography by Garry Demarest.)

Xavier’s casket in the Basilica of Bom Jesu.


The nave of the Basilica of Bom Jesu

Close-up of the main altar in Bom Jesu


Another altar in Bom Jesu

Se Cathedral, Old Goa.

The nave of Se Cathedral.

Xavier is still part of the life of many Indian Christians, many generations removed from his appearance in Goa more than 450 years ago.

This is an older church in Old Goa that predates the current Basilica of 1695.

Roman Catholicism didn't completely conquer the hearts and minds of the local peoples. It is still India. Christianity can never be more than a competing cult.

The Creation of a European Saint in Baroque Art

Nicolas Poussin (1595-1664)
The Miracle of Saint Francis Xavier

Saint Francis Xavier by Andrea Pozo (1642-1709), lay brother of the Society of Jesus, 1701, Oil on canvas, Kiscelli Museum, Budapest.

Peter Paul Rubens 1617/1618

This monumental painting was displayed alternately with The Miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola on the high altar of Antwerp's Jesuit Church.

St. Francis Xavier stands preaching to a crowd of people. Some of the miracles he performed as part of his missionary activity in Asia are vividly depicted, both as a testimony to the Counter-Reformation and as preparation for the beatification of St. Francis Xavier in 1619. A man is summoned back from the dead, the blind and lame are healed, and in the temple an idol is falling, broken, to the ground.

Depiction of one of the miracles of Francis Xavier.

André Reinoso, The Miracle of Saint Francis Xavier (1619)
at the Santa Casa de Misericórdia de Lisboa / Museu de São Roque, Lisbon, Portugal

Images from Japanese Art

Traditional screens. Images of the great Portuguese trading ships. Jesuits, or priests, are among the passengers.

And finally some of the sweeter images of Xavier. Although my analysis has been to portray Xavier as a very European figure, that is not to say that his influence was entirely negative. (The tonsure on Xavier might indicate that he has been incorrectly identified with one of the Franciscans who followed the Jesuits in Japan).