02 September 2008

The Mural tradition of Kerala Churches

The mural paintings remained a major medium of public communication for over a thousand years. Great cycles of religious stories were spread across the walls of ecclesiastical structures almost as Christianity became state religion in west and at a similar period in east. Pope Gregory the Great ( 590-604) is said to have encouraged the pictographic forms as the ideas conveyed are universally communicable. For a long time in history pictures, inscriptions worked together as an explanatory symbiosis of Christianity.

Historical discussions of visual story telling began in the beginning of nineteenth century. This article examines some of the Mural paintings in Kerala Churches.

Many Kerala churches have century old murals to decorate their walls. Most of these are done in Kerala style. There are famous Altar and Madhbaha decorations in Ollur, Kanjoor, Kottayam, Alangad, Koratty, Chengannur, Akaparambu, Paliakkara, Pazhuvil, Thumpamon, Palai, Kaduthuruthy and Mulanthuruthy.

The huge Angamaly paintings of Hell and the Last Judgement are incomparable contributions of Kerala to the world mural heritage. The mural paintings of Cheppad, Piravam, Paliakkara, Angamaly,Akaparambu, Kanjoor, Ollur, Pazhaji and Vechoor deserve world recognition for their artistic excellence and skill of execution.

The centuries old jute panels which decorate the ceiling of the Ollur Church are 300 squre feet each in size. The walls and ceillings of the Chancel and the nave of that church are so fully covererd with exquisite frescos and murals that one is reminded of Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. .

The roots of the extant mural tradition of Kerala could be traced as far back as the seventh and eighth century A.D. It is not unlikely that the early Kerala murals along with its architecture came heavily under the influence of Pallava art.

The churches of Kerala contain paintings which depict characters and scenes from Christian mythology. The paintings of Virgin Mary in the churches at Edappalli and Vechur are of deep religious significance to the devotees.

The Orthodox Syrian churches at Cheppad at Mulanthuruthi contain interesting murals. The outer walls of the Kanjur church have a huge mural which depicts the scene of a battle fought between the armies of Tipu Sultan on the one side and those of the English East India Company, aided by the bare - footed local militia, on the other.

Here is a brief list collected from different sources about Murals.

1. St. Anthony’s Forane Church, Ollur and the Shrine of St. Raphael

There are large numbers of frescoes, murals - both Kerala and western style murals, woodwork, metalwork, ivorywork. Ollur church is also famous for the large number of exquisitely carved sacred images in wood. One of the reputed possessions of the church is the more than thirty- foot tall wooden rostrum or Pushpakkoodu which have sculptures in the round and relief of the evangelists and saints in addition to interesting representations of the flora and fauna of Kerala.
The artistic wood carvings in the church some are to be found on the three altars, the beams, and in the cupola.

The gold and silver crosses, the gold candlesticks, gold kasa and pilasa, gold censers, huge bronze vessels, bells, monstances, tabernacles… are some of the artistic works in the church in various metals.

2. Mar Sabore and Afroth Church.

The centuries old Syrian-Jacobite church is situated at Akapparambu near Ankamali(Eranakulam). The present Church is only a replacement or perhaps and enlargement of the ancient structure. On the upper halves of the walls around the alter are some remarkable beautiful frescoes, surely the best example of church murals of Kerala.

Satan tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden, Prophet Elijah handing over his mantle to Elisha before ascending to heaven, mosses on mount Sinai with the tablet of the ten commandments, Sabore and Afroth engaged in theological arguments with Namboothiri Brahmins are among the interesting murals here.

3. St. Mary’s Church, Kanjoor

There are two large frescoes on either side of the main door of the church. Apart from this there are several oil paintings around the alter. The two frescoes are commemoration of the defeat of tippu’s marauding army when it sought to plunder the church in 1790.

While one mural has captured the fierce and bloody encounter between tippu’s troops and the combined forces of British cannons and native infantry, the other is a victory march of the letter. Grue some details like a corpse of one of the marauders pitch forked at the end of a British bayonet bring out the horror and the mercilessness of war. This fresco is thus significant from a historical perspective also.

4. St. Mary’s Church, Angamaly

The age old painting inside the church is with natural materials. The painting depict Heaven and Hell on either side of the wall. The two altars show the paintings of Gee Varghese Sahada and Behanan Sahada, the fight between David & Goliath and the Arc of Noah. The main alter has paintings from Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

5. St. Mary’s Church Kottayam, Cheriyapalli

The architectural style of the church is European, with galleries, pillars, cornices and pediments. The walls are adorned with beautiful murals made in oriented and western styles on bibical and non bibical thems. The mural paints on the wall depict various Christian stories and are as old as the church itself. The church and surrounding places are steeped in history being in the times of the Thekkumkoor kings.Cheriyapalli has some fairly large comparatively fine murals.

There is a painting of the last Supper, Judas accepting the silver for his betrayal, Jesus’ disciples waiting for him in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus being whipped and dragged publicly. His trial, Pontius Pilate, washing his hands after condemning Christ to the cross, the Crucifixion, the Virgin Mother with the body of Christ on her lap and Christ’s ascension are the other frescoes here.
But here what we cannot help noticing is the color of Christ’s robe, which is ochre rather than white. Ochre in Hindu concept is a color related to mysticism and spirituality.

6. St.George Church, Aruvithura

The Church which was built facing the west according to the Oriental liturgical traditions has many murals in the interior of church.

7. Paliakkara Church

The architectural style seems to be largely based to the prevailing style of Syrian Christian churches of that period in many respects.The “winged” facade of the church and the figures carved on the facade represent a unique style of Church architecture which have all but disappeared from this part of Kerala.

The murals on the eastern wall of the altar has attracted many tourists and continues to be the subject of study for numerous students and teachers of History. These murals which have been reasonably well preserved are of very high quality .They have been painted using natural vegetable dyes with natural components and represent the last few among this generation of murals in Kerala.

These murals depict the major events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ on earth. Below these murals there is a huge picture of St.George the patron Saint of the Church.To either side of this picture of St George there is a picture of the twelve apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. The names of the Apostles is seen written in Syriac below this painting.

The construction of the roof of the Church is different and unique. On either side of the big wooden girders supporting the roof , one can see small figures of tigers and elephants.
During the process of renovation of the Church in 2005, inscriptions were found on the wall above the Baptismal Font, and this can also be seen at different places on the walls of the Church.

8.Kadamattom church

The establishment of the Kadamattom church ranges from the 4th to the 10th century. It is believed that in AD 865 Mar Abo, a Persian prelate established the church with the help and permission of a Kartha, the then local ruler of Kadamattom .Kadamattom Church has many murals in the interior of church.

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