Goan architecture


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FROM the 11th century and earlier, India had played host to an Islamic style that had spread over parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. Post l5th century India opened herself to an even more extended style, one that encompassed all the continents of the globe, a style that sought to recover the glory of imperial Rome (and hence identifiable as Neo-Roman). The monuments to the new style were raised in the Rome of the Tropics, Goa. To appreciate Goan Neo-Roman we need to review its idiom, stylistic varieties, types of structure, and periods of architectural development.

Idiom of Neo-Roman: the Five Orders of Architecture. Neo-Roman employs five orders of architecture – Doric, Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite (fig. 1). An order is a unit consisting of a fixed sequence of structural and decorative elements, interrelated by a distinctive proportion. Except for the Doric, each order is tripartite, formed of pedestal, column and entablature. Each of these elements is in turn tripartite. The (omissible) pedestal is composed of base, die and cap: the column, of base, shaft and capital; and the entablature, of architrave, frieze and cornice. Above the cornice there may be an attic or pediment. The orders most used in Neo-Roman Goa are the Tuscan and the Corinthian, which may be described as follows:

The Tuscan is an Italian order; its column has a simple base and is unfluted, while both capital and entablature are without adornments. The capital has a miniature torus (large convex moulding, also known as an astragal), a necking that is a short continuation of the shaft, and an echinus (or quarter circle moulding), with a fillet above carrying a square abacus.

The Corinthian was invented by the Greeks and completed by the Romans. Its column has base, shaft and capital. The capital intricately combines volutes and acanthus leaves. The shaft is fluted, the flutes sometimes partly filled with cables. The entablature is elaborate; its cornice, in addition to dentils, displays small brackets or consoles (also known as modillions), supporting its upper projecting fascia, itself often topped by a cyma recta moulding.

Typically Baroque and common in Goa is the salomonic column, a variant of the Corinthian and Composite. Like other columns, it has base, shaft and capital; but unlike the others, its shaft is spiralled, with broad coils of rounded edges. Convex projections (saliences) curve into concave hollows (channels). The shaft is divisible into zones, some unscrolled and some scrolled. One or more zones may be covered with fluting and decorated with designs like vegetal scrolls. The scroll-adorned shaft is the most common type of salomonic, and together with the unadorned variety may be classified into five main types: the helicoidal, with a shaft of broad spiralling coils having rounded edges and smooth surfaces; the vineal, with the spirals wreathed in vines bearing leaves and grapes; the laureal, embellished with sprays of laurel; the floral, adorned with coiling creepers of flowers; and the fructiferous, having creepers bearing fruit other than grapes. The paradigm of the salomonic column is the (laureal) Baldacchino of St. Peter’s (1624-1633, Bernini and Borromini).

Goan salomonic has early and late types. In early Goan salomonic, the foliation, acanthus-like, covers the saliences, with some of the leaves arranged in a sort of fleuron in the centre of each salience. Late Goan salomonic assigns to the channels its foliation that is sometimes an acanthic creeper, but usually a racemic vine with leaves and grapes. This type has a Eucharistic significance, as the racemic vine bears the fruit, the grape, the source of the sacramental wine, a liquid, according to Catholic belief, transubstantiated at consecration into the blood of Christ. The width of the undecorated salience and the decoration in the channels is balanced, but with the passage of time the decoration encroaches on the undecorated area, and reduces its smooth surface to a narrow strip. The shaft is divided into sections by rings, shaped like bands encrusted with gem-like motifs. The spirals of the column are frequently five in number.



Styles of Architecture: Romanesque, Gothic and Neo-Roman. Originated by the Greeks, the orders are constituents of a trabeate architecture, where the roof is covered exclusively by lintels. As the span of a lintel is short, interior space, in trabeate buildings, tends to be constricted. Contrariwise, the span of the arch is virtually unlimited, making possible the composition of ample interior voids. The treatment of interior space is exclusive to architecture: sculpture can handle voids in very limited fashion, and painting not at all. The use of the pier and the arch permitted the Romans to discover the aesthetics of interior space: this discovery has been called the Roman Revolution. Still, to relieve the bareness of their piers and walls, the Romans used the orders as adornment and so created the Arch-and-Order combination that distinguishes the architecture of imperial Rome. But the combination itself was unstable; the succeeding styles, the Romanesque and the Gothic, mostly relinquished it. However, as we remarked above, the imperial Roman style was revived (in 15th century Italy) as the Neo-Roman, and with it the Arch-and-Order combination was reactivated.

Some vestiges of the Romanesque are found in India (in Kerala). Late Gothic once flourished in Goa, particularly the Portuguese variety of it, the Manueline.

The Romasesque is the style of the round arch, but occasionally making use of the pointed arch. The Gothic is the style of the pointed arch – but occasionally employing the round – and also the rib vault and the flying buttress. These elements form a skeletal structure with active, slender, resilient members and membrane-thin infilling (or no infilling at all). The walls are reduced to a minimum by spacious arcades.

One variety of the Gothic is the Manueline, which arose during the reign of the Portuguese King Joao II (r. 1481-1495), but is named after his son under whose rule it flourished, Manuel I (r. 1495-1521). The style persisted in Portugal till the mid-l6th century, and in Portuguese India till that century’s end. One of its architects was Tomas Fernandes (fl. 1505-1534), who was in Goa from around 1505 to 1516, where he erected a church in 1512 (Nossa Senhora da Serra, demolished).

Manueline varies the naturalistic decoration of the Flamboyant Gothic, a style dominant in much of Europe in the late 15th and in the 16th centuries. It has an extensive repertory of naturalistic motifs, and even designs structural elements with a naturalistic appearance. Much of this repertory is concentrated on portals, which were versions in stone of decorative festal arches, fashioned from branches of trees, ornamental plants, flowers, garlands and ribbons. Distinctive of the style is the osmosis between architectural and vegetal motifs. Capitals, archivolts, corbels and buttresses are transmuted into branches, foliage, conchs and objects of everyday use. Manueline structural models include the Hall Church and the Diminuted Sanctuary Church, described below.

Traditional Goa’s dominant style, however, is Neo-Roman. Its five modes – Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassicism – all employ the five orders, but in different ways. They may be described thus:

The Renaissance is a style where rectilinearity predominates. Curves abound, but they are strictly circular and static. The Renaissance is a static style; its forms are in equilibrium, never in tension. A pattern of architectural units is created, each unit added to another, resulting in a composition of geometrically interrelated planes. The style oscillates between being two- or three- dimensional, between accenting solid or empty space, between evenly distributing light over the surface, or contrasting it with shadow, and between polychromatism and monochrome.

The extensive Renaissance decorative idiom includes acanthus scrolls, knots of fruit, sea horses, rams’ heads, nereids, tritons, centaurs, cupids, headless genii, roses and ribbons. Favoured in Goa is the quadrantal fan-like alette with radiating striations, which persisted there into the 18th century and after.

Mannerism is a style of contradictions. It is rectilinear, but of a fragmented and curvation-prone rectilinearity. It employs static curved forms like the circle, but tends to use dynamic ones like the oval. It coalesces and fragments, is architectonic and decorative; it tends to enhance empty space and chiaroscuro, and to be at times monochromatic and at others polychromatic. It also has an embryonic awareness of that peculiarly Baroque quality of concentrating on light in its irradiant luminosity. It usually does not mass architectonic forms three-dimensionally, but organizes them on two-dimensional planes. Mannerism is the prevalent Goan Neo-Roman style, one that makes use of the classical orders while violating their canons. It also generally emphasizes solid space over empty, adding unit to unit in the Renaissance manner, and also often indulges in chiaroscuro.

Mannerism also has many of decorative forms, one of which is particularly favoured in Goa – strapwork or Rollwerk. A Flemish invention, Rollwerk blends scrolled leatherwork forms with the stiff patterns of fretted ironwork that compose a scaffolding, adorned with masks, baskets of fruit, vegetal and floral motifs, interspersed with a multitude of animal and human figures.

The Baroque, in its architectonic mode, had little impact on Goan architecture. In this style curvation predominates, but it is a dynamic curvation of forms appearing to be in motion, not in stasis like the segment, the parabola and the ellipse (or oval). It tends to emphasize empty space over the solid, as though the void were an invisible force pulsating against the solid volumes enclosing it. It is also contrapuntal, balancing curve against contrary curve. It tends to coalesce forms, or fuse the components of a structure into a unity precisely through its curves. It contrasts light and shadow, but concentrates on irradiant light, which is guided from a hidden source on to an area of dramatic import (like an altar), transfiguring it. Finally, it revels in colour, enveloping rich but subtle hues in a golden aura.

The Baroque (in its decorative mode) has a large idiom, much of it derived from the previous styles. Chief among its components is the salomonic column, described above, an endless source of fascination for Goan altar designers. Another Baroque decorative motif admired in Goa was the tripartite pediment consisting of a raised centre flanked by two lower voluted sides. It was evolved by the Late Baroque architect and painter Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), and so maybe called the ‘Pozzoan pediment’.

The Rococo was a style popular in Goa in the 18th century and for some time after. It makes scant use of the orders, and partially eliminates the components of the pilaster. Its own peculiar idiom is based on the volute and the conch, generally disguised with foliage. All the shapes are ambiguous, the conchoidal forms sometimes changing into leaves and the leaves into flames. The style is conspicuously curvational, the curves dynamic or in apparent motion, the dynamic character emphasized by the use of asymmetry. Its idiom also includes pebbles (French rocaille, whence its name, ‘Rococo’). This style, evocative of an earthly paradise, delights in colour, but of a softer kind than the Baroque, a palette of white, cream, yellow, light green and light blue, with touches of gold – all immersed in a suave luminosity.

Neoclassicism, the last Neo-Roman style, is seldom found in Goa (but often in British India), and is a Mannerism of a more doctrinaire and archaeological sort, dependent on Greek models rather than on Roman. It restores the Renaissance predominance of the rectilinear over the curved, of solid space over the empty, and of the static over the dynamic. How these styles were applied to the Goan church is examined below.

Goan architects adopted three models of church, the first two rarely and the third commonly – the Hall Church, the Greek Cross-Domed Church and the Diminuted Sanctuary Church.

A Hall Church is one where nave and aisles are approximately of equal height, the aisles divided from the nave by rows of columns or slender piers, and crowned by masonic vaults or wooden roofs. There are no windows along the sides of the nave; the building is lit only by openings in its outer walls, so that an equable and dim luminosity pervades the interior. Interior spaciousness is realized by resting the arcades of the nave and the aisles on slender piers or on columns, an arrangement that gives rise to a plurality of diagonal vistas in addition to the main axial one. The columnar rows form a diaphanous screen, making the space at the building’s centre seem to expand into its outer limits. The type was favoured by the religious orders devoted to evangelizing the laity, like the Dominicans and Franciscans, because the preacher could be seen from everywhere in this kind of church. In the 16th century, the Hall Church was also considered the ideal model for a cathedral. Goa’s cathedral, the Sé (1562-1651, Julio Simao; fig. 2) is a Hall Church, the only one of its kind in the land.

But it was the Latin Cross-Domed Church, like St. Peter’s, that came to be accepted as the ideal model for a Catholic church. It is distinguished from the Hall Church by the clerestory, the storey formed by the nave wall rising above the aisles and pierced by windows, letting in more light into the main vessel of the church. The single long arm of the Latin cross was the nave, and the three short arms the apse and transepts. Above the crossing of the nave and transepts rose the dome, the main source of light in the interior, conferring greater solemnity and splendour to the sanctuary. But Goan architects did not use the Latin cross-domed church; they erected just one Greek Cross-Domed Church (where the four arms of the cross are equal), Nossa Senhora da Divina Providência (1656-1661, Carlo Ferrarini and Francesco Maria Milazzo), modelled Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s (fig. 3).

Most favoured by Goan architects and patrons was the Diminuted Sanctuary Church where a large single nave opens out into a smaller, lower and narrower sanctuary.



The focus of a Goan (and Christian) church is the altar, where is celebrated the sacrifice of the Mass, a re-enactment of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on Calvary. Behind this altar is a large decorated screen, frequently gilt and of imposing proportions, known as a retable. Of the many types of retable, three are popular in Goa – the Iconostasis Retable, the Aedicule Retable, and the Trono.

To briefly describe them, the Icouostasis retable is a many compartmented screen, usually of a grid-like pattern and containing icons in sculptural or pictorial form.

Aedicule retable. A screen with a single or dominant compartment, associated with not more than two subordinate compartments. The type has two varieties, one with a solid and the other with a hollow centre. The solid-centred retable may have that centre designed as a niche. The hollow-centred retable can have an arch or alcove at its midpoint, giving the retable the appearance of a Roman triumphal arch, with one high central archway flanked by smaller bays with lower arches, compartments, bas-reliefs, and the like, with the whole usually framed by a giant order. An example of the solid-centred retable is the high altar of Bom Jesus (c.1699). The hollow-centred or triumphal arch variety has a grand sample in Goa, the high altar of Espirito Santo in Velha Goa (c. 1670).

Trono. A type that arose in Portugal around 1660, consisting of a stepped pyramid of candlestands, inserted in a niche or alcove, the topmost candlestand serving as a base for the monstrance (an open or transparent vessel, usually of precious metal, in which the consecrated Host is exposed for adoration). The topmost candlestand is thus conceived as the pedestal or ‘throne’ (hence, trono) where reposes the majesty of Christ veiled in the Host, the visible form of the hidden God. The pedestal is sometimes crowned by a pavilion or canopy to shelter the monstrance itself. The candlestands have straight or curved sides (sometimes of volute shape), in plan rectangular, redented or semi-octagonal. The silhouette of the stepped pyramid is not unlike that of the Dravidian temple tower. The trono symbolizes the sacred mountain, where the soul communicates with God; or the ladder of Jacob (Genesis 28), signifying the ascetic process whereby the soul climbs up to God.

For the Baroque age, enraptured by glory, the Eucharist was of all the seven Catholic sacraments the one where this quality attained its apotheosis. Few theologians appreciated the glorious character of the Eucharist more vividly than the Jesuit Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1703), one of the great orators of the Baroque age. For Bourdaloue, the Eucharist is a continuous and perpetual extension of the Incarnation, by virtue of which God takes on human form and thus intimately links the creaturely with the divine. The Eucharist is one of the two ways in which Christ reveals Himself to His Mystical Body, the Church. He does so openly and without veils, in heaven, to the Church Triumphant; and beneath the veils of the sacramental species (bread and wine), on earth, to the Church Militant. In this veiled form He extends His presence among the faithful till the end of time, a presence of both glory and intimacy; of glory, because under the sacramental species, the plenitude of divinity dwells; of intimacy, because Christ not only abides in churches, but visits homes, and makes Himself the food of the Church’s members, thus becoming physically one with them and so infuses them with His glory. By His presence He offers to Himself ‘a Church all glorious’ (Ephesians 5: 26). With all His magnificence God could do nothing greater for His Church than to leave her the sacrament of His body – the climax of all the glory He could obtain for it).1

Portuguese Baroque altars have this eucharistic emphasis: the elements of their design are organized to exhibit, in all splendour, the sacramental species, especially the Host, through prominence given to the trono, the stepped pyramidal pedestal.

India adopted the trono from the 18th century. Sometimes retables were designed to accommodate it, but occasionally earlier retables of another design (mainly iconostases) had the trono ’s stepped pyramid superimposed on them.

We can now proceed to examine the historical context in which these types of church and altar developed. This context can be divided into four periods, as follows.

Period 1. Implantation of the Neo-Roman Style (1510-1550). In the first period, the European style, in its Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance modes, was imported into India, initially to Kerala, and then to Goa, in two phases. In the first phase was implanted the Gothic style (with some Romanesque features), particularly in its Manueline variant, in entire buildings, in vaults and in portals. At least three churches were raised in Goa, two of them three-naved Hall churches, both destroyed – Nossa Senhora da Serra (1512) and Nossa Senhora da Luz (before 1541). Gothic vaults still survive in Velha Goa, entire, in Nossa Senhora do Rosário (1543-1545), or vestigially, in the transepts of Nossa Senhora da Graça (1597-1602). One Manueline portal survives in Velha Goa, in Espirito Santo (c. 1517-1521).

The second phase of this first period is the change over from Gothic to Neo-Roman, in the form of the Late Portuguese Renaissance. Nossa Senhora do Rosário in Velha Goa already has some Renaissance features, particularly in its portals.



Period 2. Genesis of the Indian Style and Maturity of the European (1550-1760). The second period is that of the introduction and dominance of Mannerism, again evolved in two phases. The first phase is the maturity of the European style, acquired mostly through the study of architectural handbooks, especially that of Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554), and perhaps too of Giacomo da Vignola (1507-1573), both Italian Mannerists; and probably also of the Northern Mannerist Vredeman de Vries (1527-1608). Four models of churches impact on this period; except for their idiom, they made a passing impression on Indian Neo-Roman buildings. These models are the Hall Church; the domed basilica exemplified by the cathedral of Valladolid (1585-1597...) planned by the Spanish Mannerist Juan de Herrera (1530-1597); the Greek Cross-Domed Church, patterned on Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s; and the Italian church façade, designed by Giacomo Della Porta for the Gesù in Rome (1573-1577). One example of the Hall Church survives, but modified by the impact of Herrera’s cathedral, Goa’s Sé, built by an architect of French origin, Julio Aimao Simão (fl. 1565-1641). There is also one Greek Cross-Domed Church, in Velha Goa, Nossa Senhora da Divina Providência, the work of two Italian architects, Carlo Ferrarini (fl 1644-1683?) and Francesco Maria Milazzo (fl. 1644-1669; and not Francesco Manco, as was previously believed). Surviving up to the early 20th century was the Italianate façade of Nossa Senhora do Carmo, also in Velha Goa (1612, destroyed).



The second phase of the second period is the genesis of the Indian style, embodied in a church constituted of four elements that are distinctively Indian, less in themselves than in their combination – diminuted sanctuary, reticulated façade, modified classical idiom and the application of some of the principles of the Indian aesthetic, such as are given concrete form in the Hindu temple. The Diminuted Sanctuary Church, like the temple, has a large nave opening out into a smaller sanctuary. The type is general in the Portuguese world, but also occurs in Central Europe, rarely in Spain, and occasionally in Italy. However, its analogies to the Hindu temple made it particularly attractive to Indian architects.



The reticulated façade is the patterning of the surfaces of a building, in our case the church front, by the use of the orders, generally pilasters, rarely engaged columns, crowned by an entablature, forming a grid or reticular design over the wall, dividing the front into compartments, each framing a void, an architectural motif, or sculptural device. Reticulation seems to be demanded by the Indian aesthetic, one of whose postulates is the equivalence of multiplicity and monumentality: the more the units, structural or decorative, in a building, the more monumental the building will be. In a Hindu temple monum entality depends, on plan, on the number of bays or ‘chariots’ (rathas), and on elevation on the subdivision of the temple’s three levels – socle, wall and tower. In the Goan church, the monumentality of the façade (frontispiece and towers) is determined on plan by the number of bays, and on elevation by the number of storeys. A 3 x 3 formula (3 bays x 3 storeys) pertains to a modest structure; more ambitious is a 5 x 3 edifice; the most monumental type of Goan church obeys a 5 x 5 formula (fig. 4).

Another postulate of the Indian aesthetic may be identified as that of conservative evolution, as when a set of seminal decorative and architectural themes is established, after which the themes are refined, elaborated and combined indefinitely. Which is why the Mannerist style in India, once its idiom had been learnt from architectural handbooks, was never superseded till the end of the Neo-Roman period. The European aesthetic, on the other hand, appears to be motivated by revolutionary evolution, as when the seminal motifs that arise and coalesce into a stylistic system, are elaborated over only a short period (short by Indian standards), and are replaced by a new set of motifs organized into another stylistic system. Thus, in Western architecture, styles succeed styles in rapid sequence. The application of the two postulates of the Indian aesthetic is complemented by the use of traditional Indian decorative motifs like the pot, the myrobalan (amalaka) and the lotus, and of forms derived from nature and mythical animals, fanciful monsters, and tropical fruits and plants. Indo-Islamic motifs also appear, like the guldasta, a colonnette-like finial crowned by an onion-shaped globule. In addition, the kind of Mannerism dominant in Goa encourages the violation of the classical orders’ standardized proportions, echoing the freer modulation of columnar mouldings usual in traditional Indian architecture.

Period 3. Maturity of the Indian Style (1660-1760). The Indian style’s major masterpieces constitute the Indian Baroque Quintet: Espírito Santo in Velha Goa (1661-1668), Espírito Santo at Margao (1675-1684), Santana at Talaulim (1681-1695, Francisco Do Rego? Fig. 4), Nossa Senhora da Piedade at Divar (1699-1724, António João de Frias), and Santo Estêvao at Jua (1759).



In the third period the reticulated façade refines its rhythms; the cupoliform fronton (a flat façade designed to look like a round cupola; cf. Santo Aleixo at Calangute, 1741) is invented. The modification of the idiom produces distinctively Indian forms, like the crowning of two pilaster shafts with a single Corinthian capital, and the creation of new orders (like the Indian Tuscan and the Indian Corinthian/Composite). From around the beginning of the 18th century, the use of the salomonic column, one of the few forms Baroque accepted in India, becomes widespread. The planed groin vault, modulated with a variety of geometrical patterns in coffers, and de-materialized in volume along with the supporting walls, is realized in the Quintet.



Neo-Roman design was adapted to Hindu houses of worship in the 17th century, but the third period saw the erection of the major Hindu temples. including the majestic Shanta Durga of Queula (c. 1730-1738) and the elegant Nageshi of Bandora (1780; fig 5).

Period 4. Finale of the Indian and European Styles (1760-1850). Goan architecture’s final period has two phases. First, the finale of the Indian style, where designs previously executed on a grand scale are applied to buildings of a more modest size, especially chapels. A composite idiom develops, which may be called the Goan Eclectic style, combining motifs from previous Neo-Roman and from Indo-Islamic styles – like the Cypress or Baluster Column, the pot-based shaft, the column shaft with cabling but without flutes, cusped arches and the Bengali pavilion roof. Second, the finale of the European style, where the last modes of Neo-Roman are introduced, Rococo and Neoclassicism, particularly the former. Its retables and pulpits motifs are borrowed from German and Portuguese Rococo; in church buildings the single-storey façade articulated by a giant order and a gable with multi-curved Rococo volutes is adopted.

Neo-Roman endured in India till the mid-20th century. In 1950 a church in Agonda was built in a debased version of that style whose idiom had been earlier employed in the erection of Goa’s grand monuments, which, alas, are in peril today.


Figure 1


Figure 2


Figure 3


Figure 4


Figure 5



1. Bourdaloue, ‘Sermon sur le Tres-Saint Sacrement’, partie 2. Oeuvres completes de Bourdaloue. Paris: Vivès, 1878, pp. 142-143.



Figure 1: The five orders of classical architecture

Figure 2: Velha Goa. Se, Cathedral of St. Catherine. Architect: Julio Simão 1562-1651

Figure3: St. Peter’s and the Providencia. Left (prototype): Rome, St. Peter’s, façade. Architects: Bramante, Sangallo, Michelangelo, Della Porta and Maderno, 1506-1614. Right (ectype): Velha Goa, Nossa Senhora da Divina Providência. Architects: Carlo Ferrarini and Francesco Maria Milazzo, 1656-1661

Figure 4: Santana de Talaulim, 1681-1695, Architect: Francisco do Rego?

Figure5: Two Goan Hindu temples. Left: Queula, Shantadurga, c. 1730-1738. Right: Bandora, Nageshi, 1780