The Good Shepherd, Ceylon or Goa, c. 1600
This superb and rare figure of the Christ Child as the Good Shepherd is carved out of rock crystal, mounted with gold and precious stones. It was probably produced in Goa or Ceylon (Sri Lanka) around 1600. The Christ Child is depicted seated cross-legged on a cushion, his right hand supporting his head and with a lamb on his lap and shoulder (Fig. 1). The sheep characterise him as the Good Shepherd, who shelters and protects his flock of believers. This refers to Psalm 23 and in particular to the parable of the Good Shepherd in Saint John’s
Gospel, in which Christ proclaims ‘I am the Good Shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep’. This early Christian subject was revived in the Indo-Portuguese art of the Renaissance, in particular in rock crystal carvings and sculptures in ivory from the Portuguese colonies in Goa and Ceylon. In 1498, during the reign of King Manuel I, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the coast of India. He was soon followed by fleets of merchants and Christian orders, most notably the Jesuits, who were actively involved in the conversion of the native population in Ceylon and Goa.
They brought Flemish religious prints, for example depicting the young Christ sleeping peacefully in a heart (Fig. 2) – an image that became popular due to its resonance with the Buddhist iconography of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha seated in his paradise, preparing for his rebirth. The short padded jacket, elaborate belt and shoes of the Good Shepherd sculpture, as well as his oriental features illustrate this amalgam of Christian and Buddhist imagery.
Rock crystal is one of the hardest materials known to man, and this piece could only have been made through the collaboration of a group of specialist gem carvers, goldsmiths, and ivory and ebony carvers. This combination means the sculpture was almost certainly made in a royal workshop. Originally, it was thought that pieces like this have been commissioned for export by high-ranking Portuguese officials, to be traded as luxury items to Europe. New research in the field of Indo-Portuguese art makes it more likely that newly converted Christians in the Portuguese colonies commissioned pieces like this for private devotion.
Rock crystal sculptures were exported to Europe as collectable Exotica , where they formed part of the most celebrated cabinets of curiosities at the Habsburg court in Vienna and Prague in the seventeenth-century.
Sir Richard Wallace acquired the Good Shepherd from one of his Parisian dealer Messrs. Durlacher on 15 February 1876, for £100.
Thursday 12 and Thursday 26 April at 1 pm with Curatorial Assistant Natalie Zimmer in the Sixteenth-Century Gallery.