Antonio Moscheni had a premonition of impending doom on the 10th November 1905. It was a muggy afternoon in Fort Kochi and flies buzzed around his face when the first pangs began in his stomach and turned into mild rumbles. The gripping pain then shot upwards and Antonio began to break out in a sweat. His breath turned fetid. And his entrails seemed to want to erupt. The altar in the Santa Cruz church that Moscheni had been working on was ready to be unveiled five days from hereon. And through the thickening mist of pain and nausea he gazed with a certain pride at his latest masterpiece.
Antonio Moscheni had travelled far. Born in Stezzano, the boy’s talent was discovered early and he was enrolled to study painting at the Accademia Carrara. Antonio chose frescos as his medium and began painting the walls and altars of churches in Bergamo. In 1889, at the age of 35, Moscheni joined the Society of Jesus. After a couple of years as a novitiate, his superiors noting his talent, sent the young man to embellish churches in Croatia, Albania and many more in Italy. In 1898, Moscheni was sent to India.
The voyage took four months, the Suez Canal had not been built, and ships sailed around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. Moscheni arrived in Mangalore, assigned to paint the Chapel of St. Aloysius College. This work of his is perhaps the most stellar of all the projects that the maestro undertook. In 1903 he arrived in Fort Kochi to begin work on the Santa Cruz Basilica along with an apprentice named De Gama from Bangalore.
The history of the Santa Cruz cathedral begins with the arrival of the second Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral on 24th December 1500. Unni Goda Varma, the king of Cochin welcomed them. This period in history was marked by internecine warfare between the kings of Cochin and the Zamorin ruler of Calicut. The arrival of the Portuguese fleet and the welcome accorded to Cabral caused the Zamorin of Calicut to declare yet another war. Portuguese troops commanded by Dom Afonso de Albuquerque came to the aid of the Cochin king and defeated the Zamorin’s army in 1503. In gratitude Goda Varma allowed the Portuguese to build a fort in Kochi.
On 3rd May 1505, Dom Francisco de Almeida the first Portuguese Viceroy laid the foundation stone of the Santa Cruz church, the feast day of the Invention of the Holy Cross and named Santa Cruz. This church was located on the eastern side of the present ‘Children’s Park’ in Fort Cochin.
The Dutch occupied Cochin in 1663 and razed all Portuguese religious structures to the ground. Only the St. Francis church and cathedral were left intact. The Dutch made the cathedral a store of arms. The British demolished it when they took over Cochin in 1795. One of the decorative granite pillars of the destroyed cathedral is still kept as a monument at the south eastern corner of the present Basilica premises.
A hundred years passed before João Gomes Ferreira (1887–1897), the Bishop of Cochin, initiated the reconstruction of the cathedral and it was completed by Mateus de Oliveira Xavier (1897–1908). The church now has two lofty spires and a remarkably bright, white-washed exterior and a pastel-coloured interior.
As Moscheni gazed upon his work, an extravagant style reminiscent of the excessive artistic indulgences of the baroque – columns decorated with frescoes and murals. Seven large canvas paintings depicting the passion and death of Christ on the cross, a painting of ‘The Last Supper’, modelled on the famous painting of Leonardo da Vinci, luminous in the afternoon light streaking in through beautiful stained glass windows, the pangs in his stomach grew more painful and insistent. The figures in his paintings turned grotesque, the luminous colours swirled around his face, sweat soaking his cassock, trickling down his armpits and between his legs and the flies hummed a dirge.
Later that night after a frugal dinner of gruel, Moscheni slept fitfully as his body continued its purgation. In the morning his dead body was found, crumpled on soiled sheets, like a cloth bag bereft of its content. Four days later, his labour of love would be unveiled to the world. Moscheni’s last words floated over Kochi that night, “Lord why have you forsaken me?”