Rare and important sculptural group made in Goa in the 17th century, finely carved in ivory with traces of polychromy, depicting the Archangel Michael slaying the Dragon, a very rare representation in the devotional Indo‑Portuguese ivory carving production, of which no other example is known to us.
The particular iconography refers to the Book of Revelation (12:7 – 9), in which the Archangel Michael emerges as the general of the armies of God against the forces of Satan and his angels, defeating him in this celestial war. It is this victory against the forces of evil and in particular against Satan (Dragon) that we find depicted in this group, a most useful and much needed iconography, for the missionary efforts carried out in Portuguese Asia in the so-called Age of Discovery, since the missionaries fought daily against the local "evil" forces of paganism.
An unusually large image, most likely conceived for a private oratory of an nobleman settled in Asia or for a rich merchant, in this Archangel Michael slaying the Dragon we see depicted the archangel (lacking his original wings, which would be joined in the back), trampling on the dragon's abdomen while striking it with a spear through the throat. Holding a staff in his left hand the Archangel is attired in a mix of courtly dress, albeit military in appearance — with breast
and backplate, articulated hip and arm defenses,
highlighted by polychrome decoration highlighted in gold — with reminiscences of Ancient Roman military armour, such as the cingulum militare with its baltea or hanging straps, and leg protections also highlighted with pigment and gold.1 Albeit wearing a gown (roupeta) over the doublet and a mantle secured by a clasp on the chest, the Archangel is also portrayed with an elm, a type of helmet without a visor widely used by the Portuguese service men stationed in India.
We do not know what exact visual sources the carvers might have used for the production of this group, although it is clear that some kind of model, probably an engraving, was provided by the client. Similar iconography can be seen in an engraving by Hieronymus Wierix, whose works, mainly devotional prints made in partnership with his brother, according to the new rules emanated from the Council of Trent, were widespread in Portuguese Asia, carried by Jesuit missionaries.
Dating from the very early seventeenth century and bearing the title "Quis sicut Deus?", the engraving depicts St. Michael with open wings wearing a helmet with plumes triumphing over the dragon, trampling it with his feet while hurling a spear through its mouth (for print see British Museum, London, inv. no. 1859,0709.3148).
Curiously, in our piece the dragon is depicted not in the form of a reptile, as somewhat expect — and therefore with no wings or claws, but with an almost human appearance, of human hands and feet in a naked human-like body, of which only the head and the serpentine tail stand out. The open mouth, revealing powerful teeth, and the curled goat-like horns betray the demonic nature of the depiction and its likely dependence
on an autochthonous Indian model. In fact, the image's character derives from that of divs or dēws (Persian dīv), demons found in Persian literature, that have large teeth, black lips, blue eyes, claws and gigantic bodies covered in fur, and are usually mistaken with the ghūl or ogres, associated not only with demons, but also with ogres, giants, and even Satan, which may explain our depiction in ivory.2
Demons, such as ours, are depicted in contemporary examples of the Rāmāyaņa — an ancient Indian epic poem that tells the story of Rama, whose wife had been kidnapped by the king of demons, Ravana — produced in the Mughal period under Iranian influence in both composition and in the depiction of demons.
Alongside the local way of depicting the dragon, clearly Hindu in character, mention should be made of the fineness of the depiction of the hair, reminiscent of the production of devotional ivory carvings in Ceylon and which constituted the starting point of the later Goan production, from the mid seventeenth century onwards.3
Stemming from an ivory carving tradition which was promptly exploited by the Portuguese, whether by missionaries keen on commissioning the images they so desperately required for the indoctrination of new converts, or even by courtly officials, the production of Catholic images in Ceylon achieved huge fame and prestige, having been the starting point and dissemination centre for an industry that, from the island’s loss to the Dutch newcomers in 1658, and which probably moved to Goa, thus explaining the Ceylonese reminiscences of our rare and very important Goan carving of the Archangel Michael slaying the Dragon. From nearby producing centres, notably from the Philippines, several examples of this
iconography are known, some of them very large in size and all of them produced in Manila.4 Hugo Miguel Crespo
Centre for History, University of Lisbon
1 On Portuguese courtly attire of this period, see: / Sur les habits de cour à cette époque au Portugal, voir: CRESPO, Hugo Miguel, Trajar as aparências, vestir para ser: o testemunho da Pragmática de 1609, in SOUSA, Gonçalo de Vasconcelos e (ed.), O Luxo na Região do Porto ao Tempo de Filipe II de Portugal (1610), Porto, Universidade Católica Editora, 2012, pp. 93 – 148.
2 See: / Voir: OMIDSALAR, Mahmoud, “Dīv“, in YARSHATER, Ehsan (ed.), Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. 7.4, London — Boston, Routledge — Kegan Paul, 1989, pp.428 – 431.
3 On these two different productions, see: / Sur les deux productions, voir: FERRÃO, Bernardo, Imaginária Luso-Oriental, Lisboa, Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1982; SILVA, Nuno Vassallo e, Engenho e Primor: a Arte do Marfim no Ceilão. Ingenuity and Excellence: Ivory Art in Ceylon, in SILVA, Nuno Vassallo e, (ed.), Marfins no Império Português. Ivories in the Portuguese Empire, Lisboa, Scribe, 2013, pp. 87 – 141; and SOUSA, Maria da Conceição Borges de, Ivory catechisms: Christian sculpture from Goa and Sri Lanka, in CHONG, Alan (ed.), Christianity in Asia. Sacred art and visual splendour (cat.), Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum, 2016, pp. 104 – 111.
4 See: / Voir: MARCOS, Margarita Estella, Marfiles de las provincias ultramarinas orientales de España y Portugal, Ciudad de México, Espejo de Obsidiana, 2010, pp. 110-
125, cat. nos. 44 – 48.