Last December I was reminded that I’ve completed four years writing this column, with over 200 articles, and (touch wood!) not missing a single Sunday.
It’s always good to get feedback from readers. I get this from my circle of friends, family and acquaintances, but it’s gratifying when you hear from a reader far beyond this circle. Sometimes it is someone who has read it online in another part of the world, and the topic was of particular interest.
Sometimes, it is a visitor who happens to read the Sunday paper. Some months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find a reader from Bangalore, Sunil Murthy, at my doorstep. He had read my article on the Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674), and subsequently visited my website and read other contributions, particularly on art.
I am grateful to him for bringing to my attention the interesting life story of Flemish painter and print-maker of the Baroque period, Michiel (sometimes also spelled Michael) Sweerts (1618-1664), who lived his final years in Goa, and is probably buried somewhere in the Cidade de Goa, Old Goa to us today. This year happens to be his birth quatercentenary.
I often take visitors to Old Goa, and when one walks around several shrines, notably the Sé Cathedral, but so many others, like the church of São Caetano, one can’t help wondering who painted those beautiful paintings, on canvas or wood panels. This is why it was so exciting to attend a talk given a year ago at the Santa Monica church and at the Fundação Oriente by the scholars and conservationists Dr. Vanessa Antunes and José Pestana.
They discussed many prominent artists working in Goa in the 16th and 17th centuries, of which I had previously heard of just one: the master engineer Júlio Simão, sometimes spelled Simonis (1565-1641). But all the other names, the sculptors Babuxa and Santopa, the painters Aleixo Godinho, João Peres, António da Costa, Manuel Simões, Garcia Fernandes, the ‘canarim ‘Janes’ and Salvador de Bonifácio (the last active in Baçaim, modern-day Vasai), the goldsmith Jerónimo da Costa, the masons Manuel Coelho and João Teixeira, the gilder António da Costa, and so many others, were a real revelation.
It was so wonderful to regard the magnificently-restored ‘Burial and Assumption of the Virgin Mary’, ascribed to Aleixo Godinho (c. 1630), still gloriously on display at the Santa Monica church. It was the first time (for me, at any rate) that a painting in Old Goa had a definite artist’s name attached to it. How marvelous it would be if we could learn the names of the painters of every last painting, wood panel and mural in the old city!
One also couldn’t help speculating about so many aspects of the nitty-gritty of their work here. For instance, did they bring their own pigments and colours with them, or did they experiment with local materials available? How much did the contemporaneous painters mingle and interact with each other, share ideas and compare notes, as it were? If so, Sweerts would almost certainly have been in this circle.
The more recent lecture series by the scholars and Professors Walter Rossa and Luisa Trindade also opened my eyes to an important fact: when we read about “the Portuguese” in the old documents, they didn’t necessarily originate from the narrow confines of Portugal’s borders as they might have been then, but would also have embraced the elites in far-flung colonies including Goa, and also those from other parts of Europe but making common cause with the Portuguese in their dominions. So even Saint Francis Xavier (who was Spanish, coming from Navarre) in his letters, seems to sometimes describe himself as “Portuguese”. If Sweerts made any artistic contribution to the city, he too would be regarded as “Portuguese” despite his Flemish origin.
But too little is known of Sweerts life history, let alone its final chapter in Goa. We know of his birth in Brussels in 1618, to David Sweerts, linen merchant, and Martina Ballu. Although nothing is recorded about his early years, he would have become acquainted with the work of the Great Masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and others in Brussels. During his years in Rome (1646-1656), he became linked to the group of Dutch and Flemish painters of low-life scenes known as the Bamboccianti. He created such a high reputation for himself that he was called into the service of Prince Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of the then-reigning Pope Innocent X. The Pope bestowed upon Sweerts the title of Cavaliere di Cristo (Knight of Christ).
For unknown reasons, at the height of his career in Rome, he returned to Brussels, where he opened an academy for artists and tapestry designers, and played a critical role in the formation of a Netherlandish academic tradition. He then seems to have undergone a deep spiritual transformation, joining the Missions Étrangères, a Catholic missionary organization, who were followers of Vincent de Paul and committed to proselytizing in the East. In 1661, He helped supervise the building of a ship in Amsterdam that would take him and others from the Missions Étrangères on their eastward journey.
Details get progressively sketchier after that. In December 1661 he was in Marseilles, in January 1662 in Palestine (yes, the Holy Land was known as Palestine even then, contrary to what some segments of the world media would have us believe), from where he sailed for Alexandretta (today Iskenderun in Turkey) along with bishop François Pallu (founder member of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris) and other priests. Sweerts produced some paintings in Syria, but on the onward overland journey, he is said to have become ‘mentally unstable’ and was dismissed by his companions somewhere between Isfahan and Tabriz in Persia. From here, he somehow travelled to Goa and was given refuge (perhaps in the Professed House, or in the New College of Saint Paul?) by the Jesuits there.
Just how unwell was Sweerts? Was it merely delirium from an illness he had contracted during his travels, and did he recover well enough to resume work in Goa? If so, are his paintings out there in plain sight, and we just don’t know it? Sweerts has been ‘rediscovered’ by the art world only in the last century, as one of the most intriguing and enigmatic artists of his time. It would be no exaggeration to state that he was the finest Western painter of his age to visit India.
We live in exciting times, as more and more information is revealed about this fascinating period in our history, rather like the dust and grime being delicately taken off a precious old masterpiece. I have a feeling we will hear (and see) more of Sweerts pretty soon.
(An edited version of this article was published on 11 February 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)