This photo has been circulating in Independent Catholic sources for as long as I can remember. It is traditionally labelled as a photo taken in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) after Vilatte’s consecration in 1892. While such a photo might exist – and indeed if it does I would very much like to get my hands on a copy – this is not it. Indeed, Vilatte is nowhere in this photo. Exploring why this is not what many of us have long thought it is, raises more questions than answers. Most of them about the nature of Indie source material. Few photos of Independent Catholic historical figures circulate with relevant data that situates the image, and fills in the story. Knowing where the image comes from, when it was taken, and who is who can sometimes lead to very interesting lines of thought, relevant to a research project. I think that part of the problem in the case of the Indie movement is that there are too few of us doing research, and so not enough of us are raising the issue.
Knowing the source of an image can prevent embarrassing mistakes like that of the uppermost photo, which is often attributed as an image of Vilatte, including in an article in the Church Times in 2000. Compared with the photo below it, depicting bishops Kaminski (left), Vilatte (centre), and Miraglia-Gulotti (right), it is easy to see that there has been an error. Like the supposed consecration photo, one wonders, how the error occurred, and what that might tell us about how the source material we have lands on our desks.
Back to the supposed consecration photo (above). The figure on the far right is correctly identified as Mar St. Alvares, Vilatte’s principle consecrator. The figure in question, however, is the large, heavy set, thickly bearded man on the far left. I have always been suspicious of this identification. Of all the photos I have seen of Vilatte, he has always been clean shaven.That impressive beard took many years to grow, so even if, Vilatte chose to grow a beard for his consecration, it would not have been anywhere near as long and bushy as that shown on the man in the photo.
The photo apppears to have been originally published in W. J. Richards’ 1908 edition of The Indian Christians of St. Thomas (see page 63). Here, the mystery figure is identified as Mar Abd’Esa. In modern transliteration Mar Abdisho (Thondanat), the Chaldean Metropolitan; consecrated in 1862 and died in 1900. The book was published in 1908, Richards’ source material mostly pre-dates Vilatte’s consecration in 1892. Of other photos in the book Richards comments when they are “more recent” and gives a date.
While it is easy to see that the mystery figure is not Vilatte – though on comparison alone one might reserve a degree of skepticism to be safe. The question remains, when was this picture taken? Richards notes on the sub title to the photo that priests wore black cassocks ever since the visit of the Patriarch. I think I’m right that this refers to Patriarch Ignatius Bedros IV visit to India in 1875. Beyond this, Richards does not help. Unless you know that Abdisho was consecrated in 1862, and that Mar St. Alvares (far right) was not consecrated until 1889.
The photo was therefore taken sometime between 1889 and 1900. However, M. Kurien Thomas has argued that the photo dates to 1882 before Alvares was consecrated. I doubt that this is the case. Mar Alvares is shown wearing a metropolitan’s pectoral cross, which suggests that the picture dates to sometime after his consecration. Furthermore, he is seated in the front row with the other metropolitans – rather than in the (two?) back rows with lower ranking clergy. I therefore, believe that the photo must have been taken sometime after 1889. Alone this does not rule out the occasion of Vilatte’s consecration either (if one wishes to question the identity of the heavy set bearded Metropolitan).
Richards identifies the figure, third from the right, as Mar Dionysios V, a Metropolitan. Comparing this with other photos of him I think that Richards is correct. If this is a picture of Vilatte’s consecration, why was Mar Dionysios not one of Vilatte’s consecrators – if not his principle consecrator, given Dionysios’ relationship with, and his seniority over Alvares? It seems to me that this raises a significant doubt as to the authenticity of identifying this photo with Vilatte, and his consecration in 1892. But it does not mean that the photo can not be dated to 1892 – commemorating another occasion.
Somewhere between 1908 and a date unknown within the last forty years the picture became an image of Vilatte’s consecration. Though Brandreth notes that he too doubts the attribution. When, and why this happened can only be answered if we can trace the original source making the claim. This picture still has value, even though it is not of Vilatte. It is, I think, one of the few commonly circulated photographs of Mar Alvares, whose influence on and relationship with Vilatte has yet to be fully explored.
*This post has also been cross posted to my thesis blog Project Vilatte.