Church of Saint Joseph

Church of Saint Joseph

Vasai Fort (Baçaim/Baçaím/Bassaim/Bassein), Maharashtra, India

Religious Architecture

Vasai’s parish church was founded on a direct order from King João III to João de Castro in March 1546. Still standing are the side walls of the nave and chancel, the coffered barrel vault over the latter and a large part of the front (tower over ground floor narthex, high choir with arch facing the nave, campanile north of the tower in a slightly set-back position but at the same height). Also remaining is the chapel to the south forming the transept’s right arm. It is square, groin-vaulted and with an arch that gives onto the opposing transept chapel (whose walls have collapsed to their bases), the frame of a lateral door to the street on that side and an opening for the door to a patio or cloister on the south side, of which there are no vestiges. The wall behind the chancel is no longer standing; it was probably straight.
This was therefore a church with a single and very long rectangular nave covered by a tile roof; the western tower body was over the narthex and housed a high choir, while one or two campaniles flanked the tower in the mode of set-back side towers. It had a vaulted chancel, two chapels functioning as transept but with no spatial expression in the nave, and a side door to the street.
The side bay, a full round arch framed by fluted columns holding up a complete entablature, is characteristic of Portuguese architecture from the 1540s and 1550s. Windows from two different periods mark the body of the nave: to the west, by the front, the windows are narrow and placed at great height and probably date to the 1550s. Closer to the chapel is a window with more regular dimensions nearer the ground; it is certainly from a later period.
Until quite recently a stone over the main door indicated that under Archbishop Friar Aleixo de Menezes the vicar Pedro Galvão Pereira renovated the church in 1601. The vicar’s gravestone was set in the floor of the church; his bones had been transferred from Goa, where he died on 19 March 1618. The inscription attributes to the vicar an expansion of or addition to the church (templum hoc qui [...] auxit). The chancel’s coffered vault, the triumphal arch moulding and the tower top and pinnacles may date to the early 17th century.
One may conclude that the essential features of the type, the church’s nave and western front, date to the 1550s, while the apse and the higher constructions may result from work carried out in the early 17th century. As regards Christian architecture in India, the most interesting aspect of the parish church is the towered front body over narthex.
In the 16th century, Portuguese architects and stonemasons built four more famous churches of this type in India besides Saint Joseph’s in Vasai, albeit some are long gone: the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Kochi (replaced by a modern church), the first Cathedral of Goa, dedicated to Saint Catharine, and, also in Goa, the parish churches of Our Lady of Light and Our Lady of the Rosary (the only one that still exists). It cannot be coincidental that the parish churches of Goa, Kochi and Vasai all adopted the same type (one can raise the hypothesis that the same occurred with the parish church in the Diu Fort, to judge by Gaspar Corrêa’s famous illustration).
The type comprising front body with tower over narthex flourished in Portuguese architecture and in southwest Spain precisely in the first decades of the 16th century. The type is early-medieval, originating in 8th century Carolingian architecture, and became quite common in Christian architecture in central Europe and the Christian kingdoms of Asturias in the 9th and 10th centuries. It then appears everywhere, from 12th century parish churches on the British Isles to 12th and 13th century convent or bishop’s churches in southern France. In the Iberian Peninsula it was then manifested in the 12th century Augustinian churches of the Holy Cross in Coimbra and Saint Vincent de Fora in Lisbon, for example. But its relevance for Portuguese architecture in the modern age results from its use as the dominant frontal body of churches in Flanders in the 14th and early 15th centuries. This doubtless led to its renewed popularity in regions of the Peninsula with more contact with Flanders: Portugal and Seville’s vast hinterland.
During the Manueline period in Portugal a number of churches of this type appeared in Portugal, all of them parish seats. The churches of Saint Catharine’s of Goa, the Holy Cross of Kochi and Saint Joseph’s of Vasai shared the same religious dignity: they were the main Catholic houses of worship of their respective settlements and, in that regard, foundational churches in Catholic territory during a Manueline crusade atmosphere.
It is our opinion that the plans and start of construction of the churches in Goa and Kochi must have taken place in the 1520s and 1530s. Saint Joseph’s Church in Vasai must essentially have been designed and built two decades later. The side door of Saint Joseph’s is exactly the same type as the axial and lateral doors of the Church of the Rosary, because the latter were sculpted and placed in the Goan building only in the 1550s, when the Vasai church was being raised.
On the contrary, the large tower of the Rosary, with its cylindrical turrets housing staircase and baptismal chapel, and its twisted corner columns, is radically Manueline. It has little to do with the ‘thin’ and classic form of the Vasai tower, which recalls later towers in Andalusia and Extremadura, and the towers of Atalaia and Areias.
The only two churches with front body comprising tower over narthex which have survived to this day are thus one that is well preserved (Our Lady of the Rosary in Old Goa) and another in ruins, albeit recognisable (Saint Joseph’s in Vasai). They may be considered almost laboratory examples of Portuguese architecture’s transition from the 1530s to the 1550s, between Manueline and more Roman tastes within the same typology. In this regard, and among others, Vasai’s parish church is indeed a precious and rare building.

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