Three Indian artists celebrate Christian symbolism

This is Passion Week. The Lenten season propels us to think not just of the crucifixion of Christ but also of the Christian symbolism in art and architecture.

Three artists who have treated this with deep devotion and the beauty of the spirit are Sayed Haider Raza, Francis Newton Souza and Tom Vattakuzhy.

Raza’s Early canvasses


One of Sayed Haider Raza’s greatest masterpieces is  Church at Meulan 1956. In the same year that it was painted, Raza was awarded the prestigious Prix de La Critique. This award gave Raza international recognition and lead to him being invited to exhibit at the Venice, Brussels and Sao Paulo Biennales as well as exhibitions in Tokyo, London, USA and Canada.

Jacques Lassaignes, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, wrote of his work from this period ‘The seeming difference between his canvases of today and his gouaches of yesterday corresponds to the transition from one technique, in which lightness of touch is everything, to another, richer and more complex, which calls for all the resources at the artist’s command… Pure forms take shapes no longer in the void, but in revelatory contrast with their surroundings, in light that exults, doubly bright, against the opacity that threatens it.’ (A. Vajpeyi, A Life in Art: S.H. Raza, Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi, 2007, p.73).

Raza’s second work is yet another beauty, it was created to reflect his love and deep observation of  the French countryside. Untitled (Church in Landscape) is an iconic example of Raza’s early landscapes on canvas. The bold palette in red and black, and geometric flattened forms betray the Post-Impressionist influences he so admired.


The landscape with its scarlet background set in a village, and church became his staple diet. In both works the black steeple and charred roofs burn in their intensity against a smouldering orange sky’ (ibid.) In the artist’s own words “… the chapels, churches and crosses (of the French countryside) touched me very deeply, I wanted my paintings to express the feeling of fervor and human tension that burned within me.’ (M. Imbert, Raza: An introduction to his Painting, Delhi, 2000, p. 37).

Souza’s stained glass windows


Amongst his many works that celebrate Christian elements both in church Masses as well as landscapes and cityscapes Francis Newton Souza’s Golgotha is a rare masterpiece.  Painted like a mosaic, it has rich primary colours, fractured with bold,  lines, it creates a choreographed  crucifixion , depicted with a rigorous energy that is synonymous with the artist.

This work reflects the artist’s occupation with religion, a theme he revisited throughout his career which stems from his strict Roman Catholic upbringing and his anti-clerical stance on the Church.  His perception of sin and oppressive political order informs his treatment of subjects like the Crucifixion and explores man’s brutality towards its own species.  This heavy impasto work with its stained glass effects was of particular such personal importance that he kept the painting in his possession throughout his life.

Golgotha in Goa has a rustic look and feel to it, not only does it have the incantations of a stained glass window it also has the panache of passion and the vibrancy of colours and contours. The angular outlines and strong brushstrokes, coupled with opposing colours, show Souza’s affinity for creating power and pathos through the strokes of vitality and vivacity.



1948 was an important year Souza had done a series of Christ works. Some of the best in this series belong to the Alkazi collection.

Filled with strokes and thick impasto tones the work reflects Souza’s occupation with religion, a theme he revisited throughout his career which stems from his strict Roman Catholic upbringing and his anti-clerical stance on the Church.  Souza ’s perception of sin and the oppressive political order informed his treatment of subjects like the Crucifixion and he explored man’s brutality towards his own species.  The heavy impasto work with its stained glass effects is of particular and personal importance because it forms his leitmotif.

Tom Vattakuzhy’s scenic sunsets


Tom Vattakuzhy is a quasi- realist master in Kerala who creates work that bring elements of surrealism as well as the deep understanding of luminosity at the hands of the Dutch and European Masters. Tom has created two works -one belongs to 2016 and the second looks like an elegy in a country churchyard;  created last year after  the burial of his own father  during the pandemic.

In both works Tom captures the illusion of light and we note his innovations as a colourist  go beyond the popularization of tenebrism. Rather, he discovers a way of managing colours that eschew the Renaissance practices of tonal unity and continuous modelling. He also  sets  up juxtapositions of colours to enhance the appearance of saturation and brightness and employs discontinuous modelling to enhance the perception of contrast and unity.


The first work from 2016 is a facet of a young girl kneeling in prayer before the Christ like figure. Cappellas in Kerala are found at different junctions and some are of unparalleled elegance as concerns elongated proportions and streaming draperies of figures. They are also noted for subtle modulations of colour and luminance. Tom captures this luminance on a dark stormy night.

He explains: “ Generally speaking the 2016 gouache work deals with my childhood recollection of Cappellas you get to see in almost all the junctions in Kerala. I felt it created kind of psychological feel or mood , with the sort of lighting against the cloudy, dismal and murky late evening. I have seen heavyhearted people praying there in a foregone ambiance of this sort. It gives a glimpse or insight into the angst and ethos of ordinary hapless or ill-fated  people. It also perhaps hint at how religious institutions wring their hard earned money out of them.”

“ I grew up seeing lives of people in and around me hence my works have a strong connection with life and its plight or predicament. I want my works to stay close to the pulse of life. The second  work ‘Song of the Dusk ‘ was done during the panic and fright  pervading everywhere during the pandemic. Incidentally that was a time my father passed away. When I paint figures I paint them not just as figures but as men or women who have traversed the path of life. Each figure has untold stories to say.”



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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