China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2022/Mar

Inspiration of Christian faith in Chinese paintings

By Sister Agnès Dang

Reproductions of undated works by Giuseppe Castiglione: left the Archangel Michael overthrows the devil, and right, a reproduction of a Chinese child and his guardian angel.
[Special thanks to Société des Auxiliaires des Missions (SAM) China Photograph Collection, Whitworth University Library, Spokane]

Western religious paintings came to China as early as the end of late Ming Dynasty in the 17th century with European missionaries who specialised in oil painting. The primary purpose of presenting the art was to facilitate the understanding and acceptance of the Christian faith among the Chinese, according to Sister Agnès Dang, who researches on the inspiration of the Christian faith in painting during the Ming and Qing dynasties. She noted that researchers often say that Western religious painting, as a material vehicle that can directly express Catholic teachings, played an important role in the spread of Catholicism in China.

This article, shows how missionaries, who are Christian painters, tried to use elements of Chinese culture in their works. Sister Dang from the Diocese of Zhouzhi [Shaanxi] is studying the theology of art at Louvain University, Belgium. Previously she studied Christian art at the Catholic University of Paris. – China Bridge

Inculturation in Christian art

In China, the Buddhist influence is quite remarkable in pictorial development, but Christianity—especially Catholicism—also occupies a rather important place, thanks to which, oil painting entered this cradle of ancient civilization.

The end of the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644] and the Qing Dynasty [1644-1912] constitute the last stage of the Catholic mission in China. Several European Jesuit missionaries were artists themselves. They brought to China not only architectural styles, such as Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Greek and Western, but also oil painting styles. They tried to incorporate Chinese cultural elements their painting. In short, the Catholic pictorial style of this time mainly reflects a Western style with some influence of traditional Chinese painting. This was the case until the beginning of the 20th century, when the Church of Rome officially asked the Church in China to carry out inculturation.

The works of Italian Jesuit missionaries Giulio Aleni and Giuseppe Castiglione exemplified the transmission of Catholic faith through images of biblical episodes or Catholic beliefs to the Chinese people.

The works of Giulio Aleni

Giulio Aleni [1582-1649, Ai Rulue in Chinese] was known for his many talents, such as astronomy, geography, mathematics, and writings in Chinese. Unlike his predecessor, Matteo Ricci, who resided in the capital of Beijing, Aleni visibly evangelised in Fujian, southeastern China. His Christian books helped his mission in China.

Among them was the Illustrated Scriptural Explanation of the Incarnation of the Lord of Heaven. Aleni used a hybrid language of traditional Chinese Confucian culture and Christian faith. The book, published in 1637 in Fuzhou, contains an introduction, a leaflet of Jerusalem marked with the Stations of the Cross, and 57 illustrations presented in black and white. It was mainly about the life of Christ and that of Mary.

The iconographic source for the book came from a Western Christian book by the Jesuit priest, Geronimo Nadal [1507-1580], which presented episodes of the gospels with illustrations, explanatory texts and meditations in a collection of 153 engravings.

In Aleni’s book, many of the images were not always faithfully reproduced according to their models, but were seemingly inspired by Chinese painting, which looked simpler than the original engravings.

They could be easily understood thanks to the Chinese descriptions written above and below each illustration. In some representations, the landscape is clearly seen, transformed according to the Chinese style, and one can even find Chinese faces and outfits of the Ming Dynasty.

An exemplary illustration in Aleni’s book is the Annunciation, which richly presents Catholic belief. In the illustration with Mary and Angel Gabriel [cf Luke 1:26-38], the joyful character of the word of Gabriel is both salutation and reassuring blessing, and the fullness of Mary’s grace means the acquiescence that God places in Mary, who says “yes” [fiat].

Giuseppe Castiglione and his works

During the Qing Dynasty, the persecution of Catholicism was often severe. At the same time, several missionary artists were imperial painters for most of their lives, and were famous for many works of a special style: both traditional Chinese and oil painting. Of all the missionary artists there is much mention of the Giuseppe Castiglione [1688-1766, Lang Shining in Chinese], because of his pictorial talent, and his numerous works, which merge Western and Chinese painting well.

The work, St. Michael overthrows the devil, is a significant representation. The archangel Michael has a superb and radiant allure: his wings are spread by the wind and he tramples heavily the back of the chief-devil, Satan. In his left hand, St. Michael holds a shield in the centre of which is the sign of Jesus: IHS [or JHS] which is an incomplete transliteration of the name of Jesus in Greek, IHΣOYΣ [Ιησους].

It is a sign of victory in Christian art. The Latin reading of this acronym will take the meaning of Iesus Hominum Salvator: Jesus Saviour of Men. This shows that Christian hope comes only through Christ Crucified on the Cross. In his right hand, St. Michael holds a spear, which he directs towards the back of the devil. The latter looks very ferocious but his body ends in a tail, and his wings are weakened.

Belief in guardian angels is Christian, and can be traced to ancient times and is also based on the Bible. In another painting by Castiglione, the child looks like a boy from the Qing Dynasty, due to the shape of the blue garment he wears and the hairstyle of his head that is almost bare. The child’s guardian angel has two outstretched wings; both walk by the water.

The principal function of the guardian angels is to protect the soul from external and internal disturbances. They are responsible for taking it back and punishing it when it turns away from the right path, and they assist it in prayer by transmitting requests to God. There are functions outlined by the Church Fathers under three assignations: the “angel of peace” for St. John Chrysostom, the “angel of penance” for Hermas and the “angel of prayer” for Tertullian.

An instrument for evangelisation

St. John of Cronstadt of the Orthodox Church said: “Images and symbols are necessary to human nature in the sensitive condition which is his now. They make the vision grasp many things which belong to the spiritual world and which we could not know without images and symbols.”

Thus, for the missionaries of Christ, the image is not only to serve beauty, but above all to serve the apostolate. As St. Basil of Caesarea writes: “Painting, in an image, silently brings before the eyes what words bring to the ear.”

The same idea is also found in Pope St. Gregory the Great when he admitted the presence of holy paintings in churches: “What writing represents to the reader, painting does to the illiterate; the ignorant see who they must follow, those who cannot read the letters can read the painting.”

In reality, the Christian image, which has its own language and is understandable by the sacred faces and symbolic gestures represented, silently proclaims the Gospel. This is why holy images are often the object of great veneration in the Church, even adoration.

The main source of inspiration of the Christian paintings from the Ming and Qing dynasties is Christian belief based on the Bible, and the tradition of the Church. As such, it can be a powerful tool for evangelising.

Although many Christian works of painting and sacred art were destroyed during the long persecution of the Church during the Qing Dynasty, their contribution to the mission of evangelisation was certainly considerable.

The special contribution of these works enriched Christian art in general and even provided an original way of expressing the faith thus offering a new asset to missiology and even theology.