The St. John’s Church is indeed one of a kind. While I gave glimpses of the remarkable church compound in my last post, in this one, we will slowly step in through the foyer and take in the first set of unimaginably amazing artefacts that you might have no idea could exist anymore!
Consecrated on the 24th June 1787, the church had been named after St. John the Baptist. Curiously, the same saint is also revered by the not so Christianized Freemasons and here in this very church will we come across telltale signs of a connection between the two disciplines.
The entrance to the church lies from the west side, though this was updated after a few alterations. Also unique are the inclined pathways to the entrance that had once been used to help palanquins to be carried right to the main door. In classic European fashion, there existed a membership fee of Rs. 3 per month for a secured seat at the church. Considering the value of the amount and the importance of the Church, one must say it was quite a feat to get back then to get a membership! And here we are bothered about how much clubs demand as membership fees! Baah!
Three stone tablets on the wall welcome you to the interiors of the church – One mentioning Raja Nobo Kishen Bahadur donating the land to the church committee, one commemorating the first stone laying ceremony by Governor-General Warren Hastings in 1784 and the last one placed after the restoration of the church was completed in 2007.
Once you cross the threshold, there is a room on either side – the one on the left is used as the office of the church and that one on the right is the Vestry, a room of immense historical value. With special permission, if you can manage to enter the Vestry, hidden behind a wooden partition, you are sure to be enamoured by the history of the place. This room has so many things of historical value that it is sure to give you Goosebumps! Generally meant to host Church Committee meetings, this room was technically from where Colonial India was ruled at one point of time as it witnessed gatherings of Church Council members from the time of its consecration.
At the centre of the room is a large octagonal table, at least a couple of centuries-old, to accommodate 8 chairs, one of which was to be Warren Hastings’s when this room was used for the above-mentioned purpose of ruling the country. The original chair is now preserved in a glass case and a mantle clock used back then, is miraculously still functional for centuries and stands on one of the showcases! One of the most important relics of this room is a portrait of Warren Hastings with his original signature. The walls are full of portraits and pictures of church bearers from the past, a construction blueprint of the church, a handwritten note by John Evans and a portrait of Johan Zoffany, the man who painted the Indian version of the Last Supper now hanging in the main hall of the church, which we will come to a little later.
There was a common joke during those times on how Governor-General Hastings would never place his chair on the same face of the table on two consecutive meetings. He would keep shuffling his seat so that any planned assassination attempt against him might be thwarted by sheer surprise factor. Known for his not-so-honest and notorious ways, there sure were people who would have loved to execute the act! Rulers, I tell you!
Interestingly, St. John the Baptist, in whose name the Church was consecrated, had also been regarded as the patron of Stonemasons in continental Europe during the Middle Ages and is revered globally by Freemasons till date. There is little wonder, therefore, if you find a few masonic references and symbols scattered casually around the church. In fact, on the 27th December 1787, Rev. Johnson, an eminent Freemason of his time delivered a historical sermon on the origin of the Freemason’s society from ancient Egypt in a general meeting of the society in Calcutta and much later in 1927 and 1928 when the Freemasons Lodge was build and became functional processions were going back and forth between these two religious places.
Noticeable right outside the room on the right wall is a memorial of the Anglo-Nepalese War showing war scenes between the British and the Gurkha Armies. Put up in memory of Capt. Charles Lionel Showers, Lt. Humphry Bagot and Lt. Edward Wilson Broughton who died during the capture of Malaun in 1815 by the Bengal Infantry regiment.
Considering it was a cathedral and the main church of the Presidency at one point of time the main seating area is rather small with fourteen Doric columns supporting the roof, a center seating section, and sections to the right and left. There used to be some galleries to the North and South sections, facing each other with the left gallery reserved for the Governor-General, his family, other members of the Council and their families and women from their society and the right one was for the Judges and other important members of the gentry. A Japanese air raid on Calcutta during WWII in December 1942 had resulted in the collapse of most of these balconies except a portion on the South Western side. Thankfully the bomb had failed to detonate properly limiting the damage.
The central section had simple benches for the general members of the community with the seating behind the pipe organ again reserved for the church officials and their family members while the choir would be opposite the pipe organ. Oh yes, the pipe organ! This unique musical instrument, believed to have been made in the early nineteenth century, is more than two centuries old now and still functional.
Manufactured in England by William Hill & Son and Norman & Beard Ltd famed for manufacturing pipe organs for movie theatres, this pipe organ has been in regular use till August 2020. What sets this pipe organ apart is the row of mirrors around the organ positioned to enable the player to watch the choirmaster for the right cues, even while sitting with his back to the choir. It is essential to remember that a pipe organ, though it might look similar to a piano, follows a far more complicated process where the sound comes out of pipes of various sizes based on how the player handles the keyboards as well as the footboards giving it a sustained sound. Unfortunately, John Purty, the organ player who had been churning out music from this ancient organ every weekend and through every mass for close to forty years passed away early this September. The magic keyboards now sit silently awaiting a new pair of hands to stir life into them all over again!
Straight ahead is the main altar under a semi-circular dome with stark blue walls, very unlike Anglican churches. A simple church stands on the main altar with three paintings in the background – the one in the centre showing the birth of Christ. The right one shows Jesus being missing from his tomb after the crucifixion and the one of the left shows Jesus preaching to the masses, interspersed with angels between each painting. These three paintings combine to form his birth, ministry and resurrection, summing up the most significant moments of his being.
The Last Supper by Johann Zoffany
This unique piece of painting is the most famous artwork here hanging on the wooden wall of the organ. Painted in 1887 by Johann Zoffany and restored in 2010 this version of the Last Supper is not a replica of the original by Leonardo Da Vinci, but used real-life characters present in Calcutta during that time, to depict faces of the various characters in the original painting.
Zoffany’s Jesus looked like a Greek priest, Father Parthenio while other apostles apart from John and Judas were local merchants from Calcutta. In keeping with a rather effeminate form of John in the original painting, Zoffany’s John resembled W.C.Blacquiere, the Police Magistrate of Calcutta who was known to be particularly adept as dressing himself as a woman in handling cases. Curiously his depiction in this rather Christian portrait could be slightly inappropriate given his hostility towards Christianity. The portrayal of Judas though has several claimants. While some claim he resembled a certain English gentleman from Lucknow famous for betraying more than one Nawab, some others claim the inspiration was a certain Mr Paul from the court of Oudh. Some others say Zoffany had even faced a lawsuit for depicting a local auctioneer William Tulloh as Judas.
Apart from these depictions, there are three significantly colonial Indian touches in the painting – a typical Indian peon’s sword hanging on the left wall; a metal spittoon in front of the table and a Bhistee bag right next to it. Bhistees were very common in Calcutta of those times and while they are a vanishing (or even vanished) profession now, this one historical piece of art has immortalized the profession.
While it seems like a longish post, trust me, all I could cover is just a section of this historical monument. More on the umpteen and significant tombs and memorials in the next post…stay tuned and will be back soon!