Church Monuments Society

Epitaph commemorating Dona Catarina wife of the viceroy Garcia de Sa

The monument of Catarina Pires, a Portuguese woman in 16th century Goa

Month: November 2020
Type: Wall monument  
Era: 16th Century

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Nossa Senhora do Rosario – Our Lady of the Rosaries Church
Bainguinim, Goa 403110, India

More about this monument

This enigmatic and extraordinary wall monument has survived five centuries embedded in the wall of Nossa Senhora do Rosario – Our Lady of the Rosaries Church, in Velha Goa (Old Goa). Blending Indian motifs with a Portuguese inscription, it commemorates Catarina Pires (d. 1546), wife of Garcia de Sá, who was for a while governor of Goa.

An enigmatic and extraordinary wall monument has survived five centuries embedded in the wall of Nossa Senhora do Rosario – Our Lady of the Rosaries Church, in Velha Goa (Old Goa), jewel in the colonial Portuguese crown after its capture from the Bijapur Sultanate in 1510. Beneath a pediment and sculpted escutcheon now worn blank, set within banded, geometric columns remains a Portuguese inscription: Aqui jaz Dona Catirina, molher de Garcia de Sá, a quel pede a quem isto ler que peça misiricordia a Deus pera sua alma (Here lies Dona Catarina, wife of Garcia de Sá, who asks that those who read this beg mercy for her soul). Below these rather conventional words is a decorative frieze – between repeating lantern-link turrets hang lamps or urns suspended from chains. The motifs are unambiguously, undeniably Indian and, on stepping back, the whole tomb takes on a highly unusual appearance for an early modern wall tomb to a Christian noblewoman. In fact, it looks much like the Hindu temples that dotted the pre-Portuguese landscape, an effect that the pediment and florid escutcheon cannot adequately overcome.

The memorial remembers Catarina Pires (d. 1546), who is thought to have been born near Porto around 1500. Little is known of Catarina’s life beyond what can be adduced from the biographies of her husband and her sons-in-law. Possibly, she was already married to Garcia de Sá when he first arrived in India in 1518, and either accompanied him when he set out initially on the perilous voyage from Portugal or followed later; certainly, their two daughters were living in Goa and of age to marry by 1548. Catarina and the children likely spent most of their lives in and around Goa itself, a colony of around 3,000 long-term Portuguese settlers and the same number again of visiting soldiers and minor nobles, as well as 10,000 Indians. The riches to be won through trade encouraged fortune hunting, and Goa earned a hard reputation among those who spent time there, but inside the city was still safer for a Portuguese woman than the fortress Bassein (Vasai), north of modern Mumbai, where Garcia served for a time as captain. Catarina’s darkest moment may have been when her husband was arrested and taken for questioning back to Lisbon, his estates ordered confiscated for a controversial coin minting programme he had initiated. Though exonerated and supported by local friends, Catarina and Garcia nevertheless struggled to find suitable matches for their daughters until Garcia was named Governor in 1548 before dying one year later. Ultimately, Joanna would marry Dom Antonio de Noronha, chief captain of the Portuguese navy in India and son of the Vice-Roy, while Leonor, married Manuel de Sousa de Sepúlveda, a hero in battle against Turkish forces at Diu, in northern India. Leonor and Manuel’s drawn-out deaths on the shipwrecked coast of southern Africa in 1552 were among the most famous tragedies of the century, immortalised by artists including Portugal’s national poet Luis de Camões. Perhaps it was a blessing that neither of her parents lived to hear the manner of Leonor’s death.

Catarina’s memorial was not the last to an otherwise anonymous Portuguese wife in Goa. The nearby Franciscan church preserves many memorials dedicated to women – more common than back in Europe given the frequency of husbands being lost at sea. Some hint at stories of exceptionally global lives mostly forgotten, women such as Dona Anna da Silva (d. 1674), widow of Manuel de Saldanha, Ambassador to China. Dona Anna arrived in Goa with her husband in 1667, remaining behind in the comparative safety of the colony when he travelled on to the Kangxi Emperor’s court in Beijing on a delicate mission to encourage the lifting of a trade blockade that was stifling Macau’s survival. Manuel died travelling back towards Goa, but Anna remained in the by-now dwindling colony rather than facing the return journey to Portugal alone. Other names can be picked out among the mostly seventeenth-century slabs in the Franciscan church, but their stories are less easily traced. There is a memorial to Dona Bernarda Távora, a member of a locally prominent family, which included among their number a sometime Vice-Roy of Portuguese India. Her tomb slab includes a not altogether successful representation of the five characteristic fesses wavy from the family heraldry (another, better version of the Távora arms appears on the nearby tomb of her relation, Diogo). There are slabs to Lianor Luis and to Geronima da Vegua that do not mention husbands. Others do: to Dona Maria de Azevedo, wife of —- de Abreu; to Isabel de Taíde, whose spouse’s name is entirely effaced; to Maria, wife of Gaspar Ribeiro, who was active in colonial administration late in the seventeenth century. Not all of the husbands were lost at sea: Briolanja Nunes was buried with her husband, Estevam da Costa, as was Jeronima de Limas with hers, Duarte de Lemos.

 Almost all of the tomb slabs, which cover the entire floor in the Franciscan church (now circled by a walkway designed to limit the damage of foot tread) are made of local sandstone – soft and wearing away, but still often the only surviving testimony to these women’s lives in Goa. The monuments thus give voice to these mostly forgotten women. But look up from the floor slabs, and take in the ornate retable that fills the eastern end of the church, its burnished gold surface wearing over centuries into honeyed wood. St Francis of Assisi soars above the altar near words at odds with many colonists’ ambitions: Pobresa. Humilidade. Obediencia. Below him, filling the spaces between other statues, a profusion of carvings textures the entire wall. There are the fluted and spiralling columns, scalloped niches and cherubs expected in a Baroque church, but in between these are also endless sprays of extra-verdant foliage and floral patterns more reminiscent of Indian or even Mughal design. Angels wearing sari-like robes are painted in the spandrels above side chapels, and the pulpit is an exquisite masterwork of woodcarving, every inch of its surface covered in foliage, flowers, and wrapping, looping chains. Standing inside this church and the others that survive from the colony, it is clear that while the architects who oversaw the design of these spaces were Europeans, the masons, carvers and painters who filled them with statuary, screens, panels and tombs were Indians.

Architectural historian of Goa David Martin Kowal has commented that ‘from the earliest moments of Portuguese-sponsored construction in Goa, indigenous Indian craftsman had already assumed what was to be their primary role – decorating and embellishing the interiors and ultimately the exterior spaces of Goa’s ecclesiastical structures’.[i] Such was the monopoly of local artisans in decorating churches that in 1560 the colonial authorities, fearing the introduction of unorthodox imagery into religious commissions, felt compelled to request an edict from the Portuguese Crown against Hindu or Muslim woodcarvers and painters working in churches. ‘Knowing how the gentile painters…treat any images and figures of our holy Christian faith with hatred, I ordered that no Christian should order images painted nor any other thing pertaining to the divine faith from any infidel painter nor order to be made… any other thing which will serve in churches’. Notwithstanding this proclamation, Hindu and Muslim artists apparently continued to secure commissions for church fittings, since twenty-eight years later the same edict was restated in more decisive terms: no ‘infidel’ was to be allowed to be painter or maker of church fabric.[ii] As the decades wore on, more craftsmen may have converted to Christianity – compelled by belief or by economic necessity – but they continued to employ recognisably local artistic traditions.

None of the names of the hundreds of craftsmen whose artistry still fills the churches of Old Goa survive – they were worn entirely from the record long before the sandstone names of the colony’s female elite began to erode. Yet it was their hands and skill that wrought wood, metal and stone into objects the Portuguese colonists were proud to affix their names to and crowds admire today, and in so doing these Indian artists gave themselves a voice that will be heard by anyone who tries to listen. The curious hybrid monument inscribed for Catalina Pires poses important questions about the experiences of Indians living in Goa during the Portuguese period, witnesses to and victims of Europe’s insatiable drive east to the rich lands of spices and souls to convert. It is time we began to wrestle with those questions.

Kelcey Wilson-Lee


[i] David Martin Kowal, ‘The Evolution of Ecclesiastical Architecture in Portuguese Goa,’ India and Portugal Cultural Interactions, Marg Publications (Mumbai, 2001); revised from original publication in Carl Justi Vereinigung, no. 5 (1993).

[ii] Provisões a favor da Cristiandade, Arquivo historico do Estado da India, Goa: 9529, ff 53, 94v-95v.