Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Itinerant: Staircase to Heaven



Growing up in Panjim those who knew would tell you that the monumental staircase that adds so much drama to the fa├žade of the church of the Immaculate Conception was an imitation of a similar staircase in the church of Bom Jesus in the Portuguese city of Braga. These suggestions of ‘colonial’ productions being imitations are always disturbing. It suggests that all innovations happen only in the metropole and those in the provinces and colonies are capable only of imitation. A more favourable reading would suggest that both metropole and provinces are engaged in conversations with a similar model but express themselves differently, as they should.

In any case, the staircase that gives access to the church of Bom Jesus in Braga is of an entirely different scale.  Where Panjim’s stairway is largely composed of a couple of sets of mirroring steps, the stairway in Braga is composed of two elements. The first is a stairway that is not symmetrical, but initiates the visitor to the stations of the cross that form the central element that binds these two staircases together, uniting them with the church whose main altar is given to the crucifixion of Christ. It is the second staircase that is composed, like that in Panjim, of a number of steps that mirror each other. And this is where the difference lies, for while the stairs leading to the Panjim church seek to impress with bulk, those of the Bom Jesus are composed of dizzying repetition of elements finally emerging like filigree.

A number of tourists to the church choose to drive up to the church and then walk down the staircases. Or, they choose to motor it up part of the way, and then walk up the second, more impressive staircase. In my enthusiasm to get the whole experience I began to engage with the staircase well before the more symmetrical portion of the stairway began. Walking through a tree lined avenue I passed through the baroque gates that announced the beginning of the staircase and began the ascent. In addition to the chapels that host sentimental terracotta images of Christ in the course of his passion, there are a number of fountains through the length of this part of this stairway. If the chapels of the stations provide a sombre Christian element to this walk, the fountains that mark the path add an oddly pagan twist given that each of them is dedicated to a planet.

Taking this part of the walk and not zipping up the motorable road was a brilliant decision. Having weaved and puffed up to the start of the formally arranged staircase, a vision of the plaster and granite baroque staircase complete with statues and fountains and gardens just exploded before my very eyes. Indeed, so sumptuous is the entire staircase that one wonders whether the whole exercise of constructing this stairway was to direct our faculties towards the passion of the good Lord, or create diverse spaces for a good party. As one ascends towards the church one encounters statues of prophets from the old testament and the persons from the new and little terraces off to the side that suggest that at one time they were carefully tended gardens. There are also two different sets of fountains, one set that highlights the various senses, the other the virtues.

The one feature that really caught my eye, however, were two fountains that stood at the start to this second ascent. They were not in operation on the day I visited, but the principle of their working was obvious enough. The fountain was crafted to represent a serpent twined around a pillar, water shot out of the mouth of the serpent into a basin and then spun around the body all around the pillar to finally continue its way down the hill. How brilliantly over the top was that!

Looking at this entire production, statuary, fountains, and the whole nine yards, it was clear as the light of day. The stairs of the church of the Immaculate Conception in Panjim are no imitation of the staircase in Braga. This latter edifice was in a completely different order altogether. No, the authors of the work in Panjim were working toward a similar but definitely different project.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on April 12, 2014)