Sacromonte

Sacromonte

Mandapeshwar (Manapacer, Mount Poinsur), Mumbai Metropolitan Area (Bombay), India

Religious Architecture

South of the Church of Our Lady of the Conception of Mandapeshwar and hidden behind modern collegial structures is a building quite unique in the panorama of Christian architecture and in urgent need of world heritage consideration, due to its absolute singularity. It has been identified as a Marian Sacromonte, probably built in the second half of the 17th century. On top of a small artificial conical knoll stands a circular chapel crowned with a classically lined dome with skylight, currently topped by a modern image of Christ. A spiral path leads up to the chapel and also provides access to seven small caves dug into the knoll. They are also circular and all have sectioned vaults. Various examples of via sacras exist inside and outside churches in Europe and Latin America, as well as more or less complete sacramontes of Marian devotion. But no Marian (or even Christological) sacramonte is known to have the form of the one in Mandapeshwar. It is possible that the characteristics of Mandapeshwar’s Sacramonte were influenced by the Hindu caves on Salsette Island. The niches dug out of the small elevation would hence recreate the imagery of caves used by Hindu ascetics, which the Franciscans occupied and reused. Sacramonte was not mentioned by Friar Paulo da Trindade in his Spiritual Conquest of the Orient, dated about 1629. The first known reference to Sacramonte is in the description by Gemelli Carreri, who was in Mandapeshwar before 1699 and wrote that on top of a knoll near the Franciscan college was another hermitage with a chapel. Sacramonte must therefore have been built between the 1630s and the end of the 17th century. British observers in the 19th century were systematic and curious though ignorant of things Catholic. They carefully described Sacromonte but were wrong about its function. This mistaken perception has lasted until today and had the unexpected but welcome advantage of preventing modern interventions in the construction. Henry Salt believed in 1804 that it was an observatory and could not have been created by the “lazy monks of Saint Francis” but rather by Jesuits, a prejudice quite common at that time and even today. Gerson da Cunha, despite being Catholic, identified its structure in 1876 as being a watchtower. The 1882 British Gazette gave a detailed description of the site, accepting that it was a watchtower, but noted that the locals called the chapel on top “Sir-Padri’s Bungalow”, i.e., the residence of the priest [padre in Portuguese]. The knoll was 45 metres high, with the structure built on top. Vestiges of that elevation are still visible in a photograph published by Brás Fernandes in 1908, though various constructions have meanwhile been raised on the site. The Gazette indicates that the tower was 14 metres high, with the chapel on top measuring five metres thirty up to the cornice, which corresponds to what is there today. Soon after Brás Fernandes published the photo- graph, the Tertiary brothers of Saint Francis returned to Mandapeshwar, a century and a half after the Maratha invasion. They built a school, an orphanage and a rectory south of the Church of Our Lady of the Conception, thereby hiding (and protecting) Sacromonte. Those buildings were later modernised.

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