F rancis Newton Souza was born and brought up in the Portuguese Catholic colony of Goa and it was here that he encountered the religious iconography that was to provide him with his artistic vocabulary. His oeuvre includes a multitude of works depicting Christ, the Church, and the Pope, as well as still lifes of religious objects. One of these works, Untitled (Liturgical Objects), is a highlight of the Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art sale in London on 23 October.
The artist recalled, “The Roman Catholic Church had a tremendous influence over me, not its dogmas but its grand architecture and the splendour of its services. The priest, dressed in richly embroidered vestments, each of his garments from the biretta to the chasuble symbolising the accoutrement of Christ’s passion. These wooden saints painted with gold and bright colours staring vacantly out of their niches. The smell of incense. And the enormous Crucifix with the impaled image of a Man supposed to be the Son of God, scourged and dripping, with matted hair tangled in plaited thorns.” (Y. Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Oxford, New Delhi, 2001, p. 81)
Untitled (Liturgical Objects) forms part of an important group of still-life paintings Souza executed in the mid-1950s to early 1960s, built around a powerfully ecclesiastical theme. Here, the religious vessels of the Eucharist—including the chalice, censer, cruets, ciborium and candelabrum—are set upon the altar. Speaking of Souza’s still-life compositions, Geeta Kapur notes that ‘They are mostly ornate vessels and sacred objects. These objects retain their ritual aspect both on account of the visual description and composition... They are moreover, clustered formally as if on the shelf of the sacristy…’ (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, Vikas, New Delhi, 1978, pp. 29-30)
The background has traces of a checkerboard pattern, a recurring motif for Souza, reflecting the clerical vestments worn by religious figures which appear in his paintings of saints. The strong black outlines that enclose deep vibrant colours are reminiscent of Georges Rouault; like Rouault, they are influenced by the startling luminosity of stained glass, which in this instance lends to the overtly religious sentiment of the painting. The liturgical references and the formal layout of the objects across the table have appeared in a number of his earlier works. In the current painting, the vibrant colours set against the dark background have a particularly bold and lasting impact.
This work was painted in 1960, the year that Souza went to Rome on an Italian Government scholarship. Works from this brief period in Rome are infused with an elated, expressive energy, repeatedly revelling in red. Souza’s choice of red is not only eye-catching but powerful, as the colour possesses biblical significance. In Roman Catholicism, red is the liturgical colour for Pentecost, the celebration of the Holy Spirit. However, red also represents wrath, one of the seven deadly sins, and signifies the blood of martyrs. The sacred vessels, a candelabrum and chalice, are made up of green, yellow and white. In the context of Christianity, green symbolises hope, and white and yellow represent purity. The colours used differ greatly in their symbolism and provide a stark contrast to each other, encouraging religious discourse and confronting the viewer with its compelling imagery. In this work, Souza depicts Christian iconography through a modern abstracted aesthetic, in a manner that is both shocking and appealing.