When Indian tourists visit churches in Italy they are often mesmerised by the beauty of their interiors and end up paying close attention to the canvas paintings, frescoes and murals depicting various stories connected with Christ and his disciples. Not many of these tourists would be aware of the fact that a few Catholic churches in India also have absolutely stunning works of religious art painted by Italians who were trained in the best schools in their country.
A church in Kochi houses the work of Antonio Moscheni, who was born in Stezzano in the northern Italian region of Lombardy. The church in question - the large Basilica Catedral da Santa Cruz or Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica is one of the most eye-catching buildings in Fort Kochi. Consecrated in 1905, it was built as a replacement for a cathedral that stood in the area now occupied by a children’s park. The original church was built in 1505, when Cochin was under Portuguese rule, and even managed to survive a Dutch destruction spree of Catholic structures. It was demolished by the British when they occupied Cochin at the end of the 18th century.
About 90 years after the cathedral was demolished the idea of rebuilding it began taking shape. Under the leadership of the then Bishop of Cochin Joao Gomes Ferreira, construction work commenced in 1887. The project lasted the better part of two decades, and it was Bishop Ferreira’s successor Bishop Mateus de Oliviera Xavier who carried the mantle forward from 1897. Wanting the altar to resemble those in some of the famous cathedrals in Europe, Bishop Xavier reached out to Antonio Moscheni, an Italian painter turned Jesuit brother who had made a name for himself in India.
From Bergamo to Mangalore
A young Moscheni studied art at the prestigious Accademia Carrara di Belle Arti di Bergamo, where under the guidance of the most accomplished masters of his time, he learned advanced techniques. He went to study the masterpieces of Michelangelo at the Vatican and developed his own unique style. By the 1880s, Moscheni became a celebrated painter and many churches in northern Italy housed his artwork, including the Sanctuary of Madonna dei Campi in his birthplace Stezzano. In 1889, when Moscheni was at the peak of his fame as an artist, he decided that his true calling was with the church. Aged 35, the artist joined the Jesuits as a lay brother. Wanting to make full use of his potential as an artist, the Jesuits sent him to Albania to paint frescoes in churches.
He remained in Europe for almost a decade, painting the interiors of churches in Croatia, Piacenza and Modena. It was in 1898 that Moscheni was invited to paint the interiors of the chapel of St Aloysius College in Mangalore.
The interiors of the chapel were entirely painted by the Italian, who originally had planned to return to Italy once his work was done in Mangalore. However, his depiction of the life of St Aloysius and frescoes of Jesus Christ and his apostles brought Moscheni instant fame in India. The Jesuit brother had even taken an interest in Indian religions and customs and one of his paintings in the college campus depicted Goddess Saraswati.
He continued to get requests from churches around Mangalore and even as far away as Bombay
Artistry in Cochin
Moscheni’s stay in India continued into the first years of the 20th century. In 1903, Bishop Xavier of Cochin invited the Italian Jesuit artist to paint the altar of the Santa Cruz Cathedral. Assisted by one of his prodigies named De Gama, Moscheni worked for the next two years at the church.
The work included murals and frescoes of angels and saints, and canvas paintings depicting important moments from the life of Jesus Christ such as The Last Supper, which was modelled on Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting. The cathedral’s ceiling was adorned with paintings that depict scenes of Christ on the day of his crucifixion.
As Moscheni and De Gama were finishing their canvas paintings, murals and frescoes, the Italian artist fell sick with dysentery. He managed to continue working despite being unwell, but succumbed to his illness in November 1905, just four days before the cathedral was consecrated. He was 51.
Moscheni was buried in Kerala, but members of the clergy are unsure about the location of his tomb.
The Jesuit painter’s legacy is something that Kerala, Karnataka and Italy should jointly celebrate, as he was one of the greatest cultural bridges between India and Italy.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)