Vatican Museum's Collection of Chinese Christian Artifacts on Display in Beijing

By CCD contributor: Matt, June 08, 2019 17:06 PM

The exhibition "The Beauty of the Heart" was opened in Beijing on May 28, 2019. (Provided by Matt)

The "Last Supper" by REN Yifang (Provided by Matt)

The "Last Supper" by WANG Suda(Provided by Matt)

On 28 May, Beijing held an exhibition of Chinese relics entitled, "The Beauty of the Heart", jointly organized by the Old Palace Museum and the Vatican Museum opened in the Shenwu Gate Hall of the Palace Museum.

The exhibition is the first time that a collection of Chinese artifacts from the Vatican Museum has been brought back to China for display. The curatorial team selected 78 items from the Vatican Museum's collection, containing three aspects: Catholic, Buddhist and secular artifacts. After the spread of Catholicism into China, western religious art had continually been integrated with local art in the country. The Catholic paintings, mostly modern works created by Chinese artists, are a very important part of this exhibition.

Upon entering the showroom, two Chinese style paintings of the "Last Supper" can be seen. They were the works of REN Yifang and WANG Suda. In Ren's work, Jesus and the 12 disciples are in a Chinese room and the characters are physically sitting closer to each other than in da Vinci's work. Jesus in this painting seems to be surrounded by the disciples who are seated. They and he are in wide-sleeves and wearing sandals rather like the style of the ancient Greeks. In Wang's work, the scene is more concise and the environment is rather like a room in a courtyard with only four people in it. Jesus is wearing a headscarf soothing a drunken disciple by him. The drinking glasses in Ren's painting are Western-styled whereas Wang's has Chinese-styled ones.

Next to the two "Last Supper" paintings is Ren's "Escape to Egypt,". It is about Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus who have left Bethlehem and are fleeing to Egypt to avoid being persecuted by King Herod. Its painting style is very artistic, with the upper half of the painting a blank background similar to a snowy and windy weather picture of a typical classic Chinese painting. In the centre one sees Mary embracing baby Jesus with her wearing a red mantle that becomes the focus of the painting, like a reddish plum flower in the snow. This is an integration of Christian stories and Chinese art expression which uses the environment to depict the mood.

The exhibition also displays two other works of Wang, "The Crown of Notre Dame" and "The Mother, the Son and Angels in the Garden". In the former, the Virgin Mary adopts the image of a traditional Chinese aristocratic woman, especially the gorgeous headdress showing the Catholic emphasis on the relationship between the Kingdom of Heaven and the human nations. In the other painting, In "The Crown of Notre Dame", Jesus and the angels also show Oriental characteristics with Notre Dame and Jesus both dressed in Chinese style clothing with a halo behind their head. The angel beside is given a typically traditional Chinese image of a delivery boy with wings.

Ren's "Jesus and the Children" is next. It is characterized more as a traditional Chinese children painting with Jesus sitting in the middle facing to the left surrounded by eight children, and behind them is a woman with a younger baby in her arms. Jesus in the painting looks quite like a village uncle playing games with the children. Chinese paintings' unique warmth adds the best scene to the holy image of Jesus.

Artist Wuli's works can also be found mongst the displays. Wulei lived in Jiangsu province in the Qing Dynasty and was converted to Catholicism during his middle years. He followed Belgian missionary Cypress to Rome via Macau, but stayed in Macau because of his advanced age. He studied theology and Latin for three years at the Sanba House opened by the Jesuits in Macau, and later became a monk and returned to southern China to preach. He became a priest when he was 57 and died at the age of 87.

Wuli's works retain the traditional literati painting style, and under the influence of his religious beliefs, the theme of his works mostly concern the social reality at the time giving people's suffering a unique outlook. The exhibition of the long scroll painting is Wuli's "Reflections of Willows in Autumn". This painting is a close-up depiction of a number of shore willows with foliage staggering and flipping, swaying with the wind, rendering the theme of seasonal reflections in autumn.

In addition to the Catholic paintings created by Chinese artists, the exhibition also holds Catholic shrines and works of art made by traditional Chinese craftsmen, including candlesticks, crosses, bottles for anointing oil, and Chinese porcelain plates that portray Christianity stories. On the second floor of the exhibition hall, there is also a collection of Buddhist works of art from the Vatican Museum, which are mainly Tibetan Buddhist statues and paintings.

-  Translated by Charlie Li

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