New Delhi, India
August 6, 2005
A massive reddish-brown building of laterite and basalt, it was built by a lone benefactor, Dom Jeronimo Mascarenhas, who contributed all funds, plus the land on which the church stands. Construction began in 1594, and the church was consecrated in 1605.
Since we were visiting in the offseason, the Basilica was comparatively empty. We stopped a while outside the church to look up at the stone façade- beautifully carved medallions with the letters IHS (for Iesus Hominum Salvator- Jesus, Saviour of Mankind), saints and scrollwork- and an altar dedicated to St Francis Xavier.
Saint Xavier (1506-52), a Spanish missionary from Navarre, spent ten years in Goa, converting hundreds of people to Catholicism, and eventually died in China, en route to Japan. Since he had wished to be buried in Goa, his body was embalmed and brought back. Despite tussles with the Vatican over who would retain the body, the Basilica in Goa finally won, and the saint today rests in a glass coffin encased in a silver casket crafted by a 17th-century Florentine jeweller.
The Basilica is imposing, both inside and out. Outside, it’s austere and weatherbeaten. Inside, it’s marble, intricately carved wood, and lots of gold leaf. The high altar, especially is very striking, with its carvings of the Holy Trinity, Mary and St Michael. If you’re facing the altar, to your right is the reliquary of St Francis Xavier. It stands atop a high platform, but you can just about glimpse the body of the saint (which, by the way, is short one arm- the right arm lies in the Vatican). Every ten years, the saint’s relics are taken to the neighbouring Sé Cathedral for a month, and pilgrims are allowed to view it. The last time the relics were taken to Sé was in January 2004, so there’s a long way to go yet. Incidentally, there’s a gruesome tale about how, at the first exposition (in 1554) a Portuguese woman named Dona Isabel de Caron, while bowing at the saint's feet, bit off one of his toes. Ugh.
Among the other interesting features of the Basilica is a carved teakwood confessional, and a heavily gilded and painted pulpit profusely covered with carved cherubs (all of which are a virulent pink and look more like baby Krishnas than cherubs). Beyond the high altar, however, there are some fine works of art: a beautifully carved door that leads to the modern confessional, and a set of intricately embroidered vestments of St Xavier’s. Other than that, there are paintings and statues aplenty of St Xavier, as well as a few minor relics--bits of bone and so on--of long-forgotten missionaries.
From journal A Whiff of Portugal