As a child, Francis Newton Souza suffered from a serious attack of smallpox and his Catholic mother vowed that if he ever survived she would enroll her son in the Jesuit priesthood. Although Souza never became a priest, the Roman Catholic church in Goa gave him his first ideas about images, and image making, and religious imagery remained a powerful source of inspiration for him throughout his artistic career.
Souza's upbringing as a strict Catholic is well documented. The impact that this had upon the artist and the subject matter of his paintings cannot be overstated. The fact that he was so vocal and critical about the church, clergy and corruption, yet created hundreds of paintings and drawings with religious content speaks volumes about his obsession of this subject. Notable Indian and Western critics and viewers who have followed Francis Newton Souza’s almost seven-decade long career, attached great significance to his upbringing and formative years as they impacted his contemptuous and anti-clerical work regarding the Catholic Church and reflected the unshakable presence of religion in his life and his art.
'The first 12 years of an artist's life are perhaps the seedbed of his creative life. In the case of Souza, this influence may be summarized as being rural Catholic life as experienced in daily companionship with his grandmother. Her influence with the vitality of folklore gave him a sense of the animistic and spirit ridden atmosphere of fields and home. The ritual symbols of Cross, monstrance, ciborium, on a platform that resembles the Judaic Ark of The Covenant, but with surfaces which are distinctly Goan, are frequently found in Souza's paintings and represent the passion and dread of a heretic creed seeking legitimacy and acceptance. (M. A. Couto, "Souza: In communion with Goa," The Hindu, Sunday, 7 April 2002).
In this early and important work, Souza adopts his formal composition from the altar at Golgotha, Jerusalem - the place where Jesus was crucified. There is no consensus on the exact location where Christ died but it is believed to be immediately outside Jerusalem's walls. When one views the image of the altar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that was built at Golgotha, it is apparent that Souza has taken this imagery as inspiration for this painting.
Three large sconces envelop the altar at Golgotha and gold squares containing icons and paintings make up the background, all perfectly mirrored in this painting titled Golgotha in Goa. This designation suggests to the viewer that this painted scene is actually in Goa but is a reflection of Golgotha nonetheless. Goa was at the time a Portuguese colony, where Catholicism was the main religion so it is very likely that elements from the altar at Golgotha were also incorporated in churches in Goa.
This vivid arrangement forms part of Francis Newton Souza’s iconic and extensive series of paintings where he explored the theme of religious suffering that was so central in his childhood. His early works in particular were characterized by the deliberate use of powerful impasto. These sweeping, boundless, expressionist brushstrokes also add texture and deconstruct his forms to the very edge of abstraction. Bright blocks of color pop out from these dark and deep recesses, producing a mosaic-like effect , reminiscent of the soldered cement conjoining glass panes. Similar in style to Cloisonnism in which both the figures and background are built up using thick sweeping strokes of impasto in jewel-like colors and delineated with bold black outlines, Souza is evoking the imagery and feel of traditional stained glass and yet again revealing the influence of the churches of Goa.
'Francis Newton's paintings, perturbing and bewildering to many reveal nevertheless the talent of a strong willed and imaginative artist...he confesses to the fascination of church music and stained glass windows. The luminous mosaic technique of the latter he employs under the influence of Rouault without imitating him. The total effect of this exhibition with its turbulence of color is exciting and soothing at the same time.' (R. von Leyden, The Times of India, 30 November 1948)
This work was completed in India in 1948, the year after India gained independence and the year after Souza founded the Progressive Artists Group and also married Maria Souza. There was a small but crucial period between his total embrace of the modern and departure from the traditional, academic style. Here we see the beginnings of his foray into Fauvism and Expressionism. Souza soon emigrated to London where his style evolved dramatically towards classic Cubism. Throughout his peregrinations Goa always remained close to Souza’s heart. He retained this painting in his personal collection until shortly before his passing. It was acquired from him in 1999 by a private collector, a fellow-Goan, who like Souza felt a deep emotional connection to the land of his birth. The painting’s bright, kaleidoscopic palette and composition recall the altars and shrines dotting the Konkani landscape as well the rich texture of Goa’s unique culture, underpinned by deep-rooted faith and pride in its Indo-Portuguese heritage. Golgotha in Goa celebrates this tradition and the unchanging values that anchor it.
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