Gracing the wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan since 1498, Leonardo da Vinci's mural of the Last Supper invites viewers to contemplate how the Twelve Apostles felt in the moment after Christ predicted that one of them would prove a traitor.
Around the altarpiece, painted clouds hover in a blue sky. Small statues stand in niches backlit with brilliant aqua. On a rug near the church wall a woman in a blue sari with a purple veil covering her hair kneels motionless, elbows at her sides, hands upraised. In a larger, newer church adjacent, a shard of pale bone no bigger than a thumbnail lies in a golden reliquary. A label in English identifies the relic as belonging to St. Thomas. On this site, tradition says, Thomas founded the first Christian church in India, in A.D. 52.
In Parur and elsewhere in Kerala exotic animals and vines and mythic figures are woven into church facades and interiors: Elephants, boars, peacocks, frogs, and lions that resemble dragons—or perhaps they are dragons that resemble lions—demonstrate the rich and decidedly non-Western flavor of these Christian places. Brightly painted icons are everywhere, of Thomas and the Virgin Mary and Jesus and St. George. Even Hindus pray to St. George, the dragon slayer, believing he may offer their children protection from cobras. At Diamper Church in Thripunithura a painted white statue of the pietà—the Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesus—is backed by a pink metal sun radiating rectangular blades of light.
Kerala's Thomas Christians—like Christians elsewhere in Asia and in Africa and Latin America—have made the faith uniquely their own, incorporating traditional art, architecture, and natural symbolism. And so a statue depicting Mary flanked by two elephants shading her head with a bower seems at home among the palms of southern India.