Goa stones, named for the place where they were manufactured by Jesuits in the late seventeenth century, were manmade versions of bezoars (gallstones from ruminants). Both types were used for their medicinal and talismanic powers. These treasured objects were encased in elaborate containers made of gold and silver and often exported to Europe. Surviving examples are recorded in European treasuries, including one made for the duke of Alba in the late sixteenth century (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The stone was usually a compound of organic and inorganic materials, including bezoar, shell, amber, musk, resin, and crushed precious gems, which would be scraped and ingested with tea or water.
The egg-shaped gold container enclosing this stone consists of hemispherical halves, each covered with a layer of pierced, chased, and chiseled gold foliate openwork. An arabesque surface pattern is overlaid with an ogival trellis containing a variety of beasts, some highly Europeanized, including unicorns and griffins. The source of these images is likely to have come to Goa through the Portuguese and may also reflect a particular European patron. (This example was brought to England in the eighteenth century by a British officer in the East India Company.)
An intriguing talismanic object from India’s western coast, this Goa stone with opulent gold container is named for the place where such objects are believed to have been manufactured by Jesuits in the late seventeenth century. Like the bezoar stones (natural gallstones of ruminants) of which they are man-made variants, Goa stones were known for their medicinal and protective powers. These treasured objects, encased in elaborate containers made of gold and silver, were often acquired by members of the European nobility; Queen Elizabeth I is said to have worn one as a finger ring. In a letter of 1580, Filippo Sassetti, a Florentine merchant, explained that Goa stones were customarily mounted in gold in order to enhance their powers; thus, there is usually some element of gold or gilding, even in the simplest examples. The stone itself typically consists of a paste of bezoar, clay, silt, crushed shell, amber, musk, resin, narwhal tusk (believed to be unicorn horn), and crushed precious and semiprecious stones, all pressed into a ball and gilded. Scrapings from the ball were ingested as an antidote to poison.
The decorated gold container in this example exhibits an ornate mix of stylistic elements from western Asian, European, and Indian sources. Its globular body is made up of two gold hemispheres, each with an outer layer of pierced, chased, and chiseled foliate openwork. On the base, a scrolling vine arabesque is overlaid by an ogival trellis pattern, the cartouches of which are filled with Indian and Europeanized animals, including mythical beasts such as unicorns and griffins as well as stags, monkeys, gazelles, and foxes. Such elements indicate a diluted Iberian influence, probably due to the Portuguese presence along India’s western coast and also are suggestive of European patronage. The tripod stand can be related to fourteenth-century and earlier southern Indian metalwork models.
Goa stone holders are recorded in European treasuries from about 1750 onward, and one suspension-style holder in gold with floriated openwork scrolls for a bezoar stone has been securely attributed to the last quarter of the sixteenth century. The Gough family with whom the present piece is associated were in western India in the early eighteenth century, and it can therefore be attributed to that period at the latest—though it was more likely made earlier, when there was an active production of such works.
The British Museum, London, has three Goa stone holders, including one comparable in shape and decoration to the present piece. Two further examples are in the Henry Wellcome Collection, London, one in silver bearing animal forms and the other executed in gold openwork. There is another smaller silver-gilt example in the Metropolitan Museum.
Navina Haidar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Exotica: The Portuguese Discoveries and the Renaissance Kunstkammer. Exhibition, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Catalogue by Nuno Vassallo e Silva, Helmut Trnek, and others. Lisbon, 2001, p. 154.
2. Ibid., p. 151, no. 47, illustrates an example in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, made for the Duke of Alba in the last quarter of the sixteenth century; also, p. 154, no. 49, shows an egg-shaped bezoar stone with an inventory record of 1750 from the Schatzkammer, Vienna.
3. Interest in these objects died out over the course of the eighteenth century as, with the rise of more modern medical practices, Goa stones came to be regarded as superstitious objects.
4. Tait, Hugh, ed. The Art of the Jeweller: A Catalogue of the Hull Grundy Gift to the British Museum: Jewelry, Engraved Gems and Goldsmiths’ Work. London, 198, nos. 407–10.
5. Arnold, Ken, and Danielle Olsen, eds. Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome. London, 2003, nos. SM A 642467, A 642470.
6. The Department of Islamic Art has one other such Goa stone holder (acc. nos. 1980.228.1, .2, .3), but it is far smaller, with a case made mainly of silver. Another example may be seen in a sales catalogue from Bonhams, London, July 25, 2003, lot 60.
Two Goa Stones: MMA nos. 2004.244a-d and 1980.228.1; .2a, b; .3)
Goa stones are talismanic objects named for the location where they are believed to have been manufactured by Jesuits in the late seventeenth century. Like bezoar stones (natural gallstones of ruminants), Goa stones were known for their medicinal and prophylactic powers, though they were manmade. The stone usually consists of a paste of bezoar, clay silt, crushed shell, amber, musk, resin, narwhal tusk (believed to be unicorn horn), and crushed precious and semiprecious stones, all pressed into a ball and then gilt. Scrapings from the ball were ingested as an antidote to poison and melancholy, as well as to prevent illness. A pharmaceutical treaty published in Goa in 1563 by physician Garcia da Orta, Colóquio dos simples, e drogas e coisas medicinais da Índia (Conversations on the Simples and Drugs and Medical Things of India) devotes several pages to the use and history of bezoar stones.
The ornate gilt containers for these stones were believed to enrich the medicinal effects of the stone. In a letter of 1580, Filippo Sassetti, a Florentine merchant, wrote that Goa stones were customarily mounted in gold to enhance their powers. The Portuguese exported these objects to Europe, and the elaborate containers reflect the sophisticated filigree styles popular in Portugal (MMA no. 2014.253 and Hispanic Society of America, New York, no. LR 2321/1). Goa stone holders are recorded in European treasuries and Kunstkammers from the early seventeenth century. The gold example (MMA no. 2004.244a–d) contains European animals within an ogival trellis resting on a bed of floral arabesques. The smaller silver Goa case (MMA no. 1980.228.1; .2a, b; .3) has a more typical allover scrolling pattern.
Courtney Stewart in (Haidar and Sardar 2015)
1- See Nuno Vassallo e Silva in Exotica: The Portuguese Discoveries and the, Renaissance Kunstkammer. Exh. cat. edited by Helmut Trnek and Nuno Vassallo e Silva. Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon; 2001–2, Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2001, p. 152, no. 48.
2- See also Impey, Oliver, The Cecil Family Collects Four Centuries of Decorative Arts from Burghley House. Exh. cat. Cincinnati Art 1998, p. 118, no. 33.
3- Silva in Exotica: The Portuguese Discoveries and the, Renaissance Kunstkammer. Exh. cat. edited by Helmut Trnek and Nuno Vassallo e Silva. Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon; 2001–2, Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2001, p. 151, no. 47.
Gough and Hall families, England, by descent from early 18th century; Humphrey Farran Hall, England, by descent (until d. 1910); George William Marshall, England(from 1910); Bonhams, London, October 16, 2003, no. 349; [ Sam Fogg, London, until 2004; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy," April 20, 2015–July 26, 2015, no. 189.
"16 October 2003." In Indian and Islamic Art. London: Bonhams, London, 2003. no. 349.
Levenson, Jay A., ed. "Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries." In Encompassing the Globe. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2007. p. 261, ill. fig. I-29, (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 277, 341, 389-390, ill. p. 390 (color).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. p. 142, ill. (color).
Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "Opulence and Fantasy." In Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. no. 189, p. 316, ill. pl. 189 (color).