Claire Farago on ‘Italy by Way of India’ by Erin Benay

A  contribution by






Claire Farago
Professor Emerita, University of Colorado Boulder

Erin Benay’s Italy by Way of India is a groundbreaking study of complicated networks of cultural exchange in which indigenous artists actively participated. Saint Thomas the Apostle’s martyrdom (c. 52 CE) fostered the manufacture of objects that merge Christian and non-Christian iconographies in unexpected ways. In choosing to work on the recovery of daily religious practices beyond urban centers, elite culture, named individuals, or even the most basic metadata to indicate artist, date and place of manufacture, Benay studies the material evidence in the context of local Hindu imagery. Her work, which draws together many types of evidence, material and textual, is a methodological tour-de-force that avoids the problematic dichotomy between center and periphery by showing that Thomas Christianity predated the arrival of missionaries and merchants from Italy and Portugal by many centuries. Benay also effectively debunks the historical paradigm which assumes that local artisans produced ivory and other devotional objects exclusively for the global market in luxury goods and were uninvested in their Christian content. This superbly conceived examination of artistic exchange includes richly conceived discussions of the Medici collection and other European collecting practices, illustrated cultural geographies, and the European context of religious reform associated with Caravaggio’s paintings in the late sixteenth century. What makes her analysis especially important (and surprising) now from a historical point of view is the manner in which missionaries and other European agents pressured Indian Christians to conform with Counter-Reformation liturgical requirements and representational practices. Benay rewrites and de-centers the European Renaissance when she concludes that pre-existing and pluralistic traditions in the south-Indian region of Mylapore ultimately helped to shape Christianity itself.

Italy by Way of India
Translating Art and Devotion in the Early Modern World

By Erin Benay








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