The Wallace Collection

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Christ as the Good Shepherd (S50)
Treasure of the Month - January 2008

Christ as the Good Shepherd (S50)

The tiny scale of this sculpture of Christ as the Good Shepherd (just five inches or 13 cm.high) makes its virtuosity all the more astonishing.

The sculpture depicts a youthful male figure seated on a large cushion, mounted in turn on a stepped base with four ball feet. The boy is cross-legged and rests his head against his raised right hand; he seems to be meditating. The presence on his right shoulder of a tiny lamb tells us that the figure is in fact Jesus Christ in his role as the Good Shepherd, watching over his flocks of Christian believers. Derived from New Testament parables and ultimately from pagan prototypes, this iconography became immensely popular in early Christian art, but had largely disappeared in Europe by the Middle Ages. It was however revived during the 16th century in India, especially in the Portuguese colony of Goa, where a major centre of Christianity was established, in which Christian artefacts were made in large quantities, often for export to Portugal and other European markets. Many of the craftsmen retained their non-Christian faith, the objects they made bearing witness to the extraordinary cross-currents between Eastern and Western traditions in this part of India during the 16th and 17th centuries. Here, the figure of Christ is clearly derived from figures of the Buddha. Among the most popular of the Christian images manufactured in Goa, figures of the Good Shepherd were generally made in ivory, this example in rock crystal being the finest of only four tiny rock crystal figures of Christ made in Goa, or possibly in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), around 1600.

The Good Shepherd is embellished with exceptionally subtle and delicate gold mounts, further decorated with rubies, emeralds and sapphires. Free trade was encouraged in Goa, which became the undisputed centre in the East for trade in precious stones, one contemporary writing of how: ‘It has rubies, diamonds such they have no price or number; emeralds of princely value, pearls of greatest worth…’

As a result many goldsmiths were attracted to the colony. Many of the finest goldsmiths’ works made in Goa at this time combine, as in this figure, bejewelled gold mounts with a rock crystal body. It is difficult for us today, when we live surrounded by glass, to realise what a special material rock crystal is. A form of quartz, it is in fact one of the hardest minerals known. To work a piece of raw quartz into the delicately carved figure of the Good Shepherd would have taken many hundreds of hours. This beautiful small sculpture would therefore have been prized from the day it was made and its first, almost certainly noble Portuguese, owner would certainly have been well aware of the skill which had gone into the creation of this masterpiece in miniature.

 

Further Reading

  • J.G. Mann, Wallace Collection Catalogues: Sculpture, London 1931 (2nd edition 1981)*
  • Francis Collin, ‘The Good Shepherd Ivory Carvings of Goa and their Symbolism’, in Apollo, September 1984.
  • Nuno Vassallo e Silva, ‘Jewels and Gems in Goa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century’ in ed. Susan Stronge, The Jewels of India, Mumbai 1995.