Most of the churches were constructed atop hills or on the banks of rivers in large areas and always faced east. Around the churches, secured by huge walls, markets also came up in different parts of the State. Churches were identified by the huge stone crosses, which were known as ‘Nasrani Pillar.’ They were in vogue even before the arrival of the Portuguese. They resembled the obelisks which were seen in Rome and different parts of Europe. They had nothing to do with the huge stone pillars in the temples. A horizontal granite piece added to a pillar carved out of a single stone gives them the shape of a cross. Stone crosses of up to 40 feet height still exist without any damage. Pictures of angels, the lotus, mermen, as well as Syriac language can be seen engraved on some of them. Such crosses could be seen in Kanjoor, Chathannoor, Muthalakkodam, Thumbamon, Angamaly, Akaparambu, Koratty, Ollur, Arthattu, Malayattoor, Changanassery, Muttuchira, Chengannur, Kayamkulam, Kothamangalam, Moozhikkulam, Mylakombu, Kaduthuruthy, Kadamattom, Edapally, and Ramapuram. The highest among them, measuring 39 ft, is at the St.Mary’s Church at Kaduthuruthy.
The most beautiful part of such a cross is its base where all the engravings are. The stone crosses at the churches at Chengannur and Changanassery are distinct for the decorations on them. The cross at St. George’s Church, Angamaly is also a piece of beautiful art. It was the model for the one found at St. Thomas Museum, Kakkanad, with the carvings of St. Thomas cross and of an angel. Near it, there is a decorated boundary stone also. It is believed that crosses evolved from the obelisks with the Assyrian background.
To find out the oldest churches in Kerala one only needs to get the details of the churches that participated in the Synod of Diamper. There were then, only 106 churches in Kerala. Many of them had a flag mast with the stone cross in front of them.
Flag masts were for hoisting the flag to start off festivals. They were made of teak wood with a cover of copper or iron, unlike the recent ones made of steel or bronze. This might have been adopted from temples. The copper flag mast at Cheppad church is similar to those seen in temples. Stone masts could be seen at Kura, Kallooppara, Chengannur, and Niranam.
The stone fonts for baptism:
Baptism is one of the main rituals of Christians. Many old churches have baptismal fonts made out of a single stone, for the ritual. Some fonts are beautiful with carvings on them. The Synod of Diamper insisted that churches should provide the facility for conducting baptism. Priests failing to oblige will be punished, says an ecclesiastical order issued by Paramekkal in 1791. Huge fonts with carvings could be seen at Kanjoor, Edapally, Mylakombu, Muthalakodam, Kaduthuruthy, Kothamangalam, Kadamattom and Changanassery churches. Those seen at Angamaly Jacobite church and Kalloopara are small, but very old ones.
Fonts with carvings are there at Edappally and Kanjoor. The one at Edappally is modelled on ‘Asoka Sthambha’ with pictures of lions on it. Below the lions there are figures of the lotus. The one at Kanjoor has carvings of angels and various ornaments. The influence of Buddhist sculpture is evident in these. Christian artists of Kerala do not seem to have played a major role in sculpting the fonts. Neither do the fonts show any influence of foreign styles. They might have been made by artists from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Pulpits were made compulsory in churches by the Synod of Diamper. Pulpits, called ‘Flowers,’ made of wood and showing the influence of Persian sculpture, were there in all the old churches. They were in the shape of flowers emerging from the mouth of an elephant or lion and were made before the 16th century. Such pulpits have been conserved in Ollur, Kanjoor, Thrissur Marthamariam Church, Mattom, Pala, and Chungam. Once the microphones became popular, the pulpits became useless. The pulpit at St.Thomas Church, Koratty, was demolished while renovating the church, whereas a few churches still retain them. The best of them is the one at Ollur. It has sculptures at three levels.
There are four parts for a church, namely, the entrance, the foyer, the hall for prayer, and the inner sanctum or Madbaha. The Altar located in the Madbaha has the significance of a sanctum sanctorum in a temple. It is made of wood. It symbolises heaven. The word altar also means throne. During the olden days, churches had three altars, which were also known as Thronos. The Sakrari that stores the holy wares would be placed on the altar. The cross, candle stand and the Remshenthi will be decked with carvings of vines, flowers, the phoenix, angels and fish.
The churches in Koratty and Chalakkudy were renovated but the pulpits have been retained. The altars in Ollur, Arthungal, Kanjoor, Alangad, Koratty, Chengannur, Thumbamon, Pazhuvil, Kottayam, Pala, Kaduthuruthy and Mulanthuruthy have pulpits decorated with sculptures. The sculptures of the angel Raphel in Ollur, and that of St. Sebastian and Koratty Muthy at Kanjoor and Arthungal reflect the spirit of devotion and belong to a rich tradition.
Sculptures and idols:
Huge logs with images of the elephant, the tiger, the snake, the dragon, and the Lion were used as support for the roofs of churches. Instead of the koorodu, Basel Mission company popularised tiles. There still remain old churches with tiled roof. But it was not permitted to cover the roof with copper as in the case of temples.
During the early years, churches had no idols, except the cross. It was the advent of the Portuguese that led to the system of idol worship. They were instrumental in popularising the image of Christ on the cross and introduced statues of saints like St. Sebastian, St. George and St. James. Idols were placed on the wall of the St. Mary’s Jacobite Church, Angamaly, constructed by Arch Deacon Gheevarghese in 1565 and in the foyer of St. Hormis Church, Angamaly constructed by Mar Abraham in 1570. When the Jacobites took over the Arch Deacon’s church, they removed the idols, leaving the cabins, occupied by them, vacant. The idols were reinstated after renovating the St. Hormis Church.
Holy images are quite common in Catholic churches. These are modelled on the figures of Michael Angelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael. The idol of the sorrowing Mother reminds one of Michael Angelo’s Pieta, carved in white marble. The image of Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, is modelled on Michael Angelo’s Madonna. The image of Christ on the mother’s lap at Martha Mariam Church, Kuravilangad, the picture of the Holy Mother at St. Mary’s Church, Manarkad, and that of the Mother of Vallarpadam are noteworthy. A Hindu mother and her child could be seen in the picture of Holy Mary, at Vallarpadam, which is the result of a local legend being woven into the picture.
Some of the popular idols of the early times were those of St. George and St. Sebastian. It is believed that the idols of St. George at Edapally, Aruvithara, Edathua and Angamaly and of St. Sebastian at Kanjoor and Arthungal were brought from Portugal. Statues belonging to the 15th century could still be found in certain churches. A holy image of Koratty Muthy is there at Koratty. The Catholic Art Museum at Ernakulam has in its holdings, a statue of Christ which resembles Lord Buddha, and one of the Mother holding baby Jesus. The idol of St. George at the museum, thought to be of the 15th century, is modelled on Pallava sculpture. The images of St. George in armour, of the princess kneeling on a rock in prayer, and of the dragon, are almost lifelike. The statues of other saints like St. Antony and St. Jude, found a place in Catholic churches only quite recently. Angamaly church has the pictures of St. George and Mar Bahanan. In Jacobite churches pictures are given priority. The statue of St. James at the St. Louis Church, Mundamveli is very attractive. Here St. James is presented as riding a horse, wielding a sword and a shield, and holding high a flag with the images of the Cross and the sceptre. The story behind it, is that a carpenter found a log of the Kumul tree in his pond. He recovered it, chopped its branches and there emerged the figure of St. James. He then installed the statue at the church built in 1868.
Catholic churches in Kerala had the system of taking out the idol of Christ in a procession on Good Friday, which was given up in the 70s. One such idol is kept at the St. Mary’s Church Museum at Koratty.
Old Testament of the Bible has many references to church bells. There are hints that when Noah made his ark, he made a wooden bell to help the workers to know time. It is also believed that a wooden bell is a reminder of the death of Christ on the wooden cross. The following is the observation of Musheber Keepa: the bugle is sounded to bring together soldiers for a war. A bell is rung for bringing together the faithful to fight the devil. The sound of a bugle is also a call inviting the winners to receive their honours. Similarly, the chiming of a bell, invites those who repent, and through faith defeat the world, the Devil and the sensual, to be honoured with the boons such as forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. The wooden bell is still used in churches during the holy week.
Bells were made out of horns and glass in different shapes, till casting bells in bronze was started in the Bronze Age. It was believed that the chiming of the bell would start off rain and bring down the intensity of the wind. It was also believed that it would protect the church from danger. Christians consider the church bell as a symbol of heaven and its sound as the voice of the Almighty.
Bells were first made by the residents of Ashrams and hence the symbols and chants of Christianity were inscribed on the bells. The technique was popularised throughout the world by the missionaries. Bells cast in metal were compulsory in churches. The use of brass and bronze were quite prevalent here, but the metal for making bells was mostly imported. The bells were hung on tall bell towers so that the chiming would be heard far and wide.
The canons of the Synod of Diamper points out that that most of the churches of Malankara did not have bells and those having them hung them inside the church, which was not advisable.
A tower was constructed at Paravur Church for installing a bell that was brought by Francis Ross who stayed at Paravur. The biggest church bell in Asia belongs to Marthamariam Church, Kuravilangad. The church has three bells imported from Germany.
The bell at Mylakombu:
There is a famous bell at the Mylakombu church. It is the oldest bell found in Kerala. The inscriptions on it in the Sanam Mônam script are of great significance. It describes the bell as having been cast for the Mylakombu Mar Thoma Church, on Sunday, 5th of the month Meenam, 606 years after the birth of Christ (“Deepika,” March 11, 1973). The inscriptions were made during the evolution of Malayalam language and are perhaps the oldest such found in Kerala. The alphabets used here do not belong to any of the scripts popular at the time, such as Kolezhuthu, Kursone, Vattezhuthu, Malayanma, and Arya. This shows that the Christians promoted Malayalam. The bell also shows that the using of bell metal, an alloy of copper, bronze and silver, was known in Kerala at that time. The calculation of the date here from the birth of Christ, dismisses the argument that it was after the arrival of the Portuguese that the concept of AD came to be used in Kerala. On the other hand it proves that it was practised in Kerala 9 centuries before their arrival (Christava Vignana Kosham). The date of the casting of the bell at Kaduthuruthi made of five metals is 1647.
Indian influence in sculpture and painting
The St. Thomas Church at Mylapore is replete with idols, said Hiathonus in 1300. These could have been similar to the sculptures or idols seen in temples, following the principles of Indian sculpture (Fr.Placid, Nammude Wreath). All the churches and other artefacts made famous by the sculptures and paintings of the characters of the Christian religion, originated in the Western European countries like Italy, France, Portugal, Spain etc. In the renaissance paintings of Italy, Virgin Mary is depicted as an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Though what you find in the sculpture and painting of Kerala is an imitation of this, one can also find highly individualistic creations showing the local flavour. The influence of Indian style of painting could be discerned in the works of the artists who reproduced Byzantine Madonna and Sistine Madonna. A Dravidian touch is evident in the expression, make up and style of dressing of the statues of St. George, Christ, and Holy Mary at the Catholic Art Museum at Ernakulam (Pictures in Payyappilly, Ignatius, Dux Ad Historian).
The churches in Goa were constructed after the advent of the Portuguese, but the expressions and the ornaments of the idol of Christ as a boy at the Basilica of Born Jesus, Old Goa, are typically Indian. The plaited hair of the statue of Holy Mary at the Church of our Lady of the Sea in Daman is an example of Indian influence. The statue of Virgin Mary at Oralokamatha Church, Kamanayakanpatti near Tuticorin is like a Hindu goddess in the form of a Dravidian woman. The picture of Madonna and child at the Virgin Mary Church at St. Thomas Mount in Chennai is believed to have been drawn by Luke the evangelist. The pictures of Virgin Mary at the pligrim centres at Manarkad, Kuravilangad, Vallarpadom, Pallipuram and Nagappuzha are believed to have been inspired by this picture.