Remnant News Watch

Madonna & Child Scroll Helps Date Spread of Catholicism in China

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As a pair of conservators at Chicago's Field Museum slowly unrolled an “ancient Chinese scroll earlier this year, it dramatically revealed how far the Christian faith has traveled since that first Christmas in Bethlehem,” reports Ron Grossman of the McClatchy-Tribune News, Illinois (June 7, 2008):

Though the delicate watercolor of a Madonna and Child is among the oldest visual evidences of Christianity in the Far East, the museum had prosaically dubbed it "catalog number 116027." For decades, it sat in a dimly lit case, cracked and soiled. The details were hard to discern. "I only began to realize how important this thing is when we (recently) had it restored," said curator Bennet Bronson. "Look." His finger hovered above the figure of a European-looking Mary holding an infant Jesus with a forelock knotted in the Chinese style. That multicultural iconography witnesses Christianity's ability to cross cultural borders, noted Bronson, an anthropologist.

The scroll was signed in the lower left-hand corner with the characters for “Tang Yin,” the name of a famous artist who lived from about 1470 to 1523. Recent scholars have pointed to a striking similarity between the image on the scroll and the well-known painting, Salus Populi Romani, which resides in a church in Rome. They believe that missionaries brought a copy of the painting to China, where it was copied by the scroll’s artist.

Lauren Arnold, an art historian and fellow of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco, believes that Salus Populi Romani appeared in China well before the 17th-century and the arrival of the Jesuits. She contrasted the figures in the Madonna and Child scroll with the Chinese goddess of mercy, Guanyin, “a Madonna-like figure.” Before the arrival of the missionaries, Guanyin was rendered in art as a solitary figure. In the Field Museum scroll, Arnold discerns the completion of a “cultural transformation,” with Guanyin representing the Blessed Virgin, and a Chinese infant representing Jesus.

"To me, the Field Museum's scroll is the missing link," said Arnold, who is the author of Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China and its Influence on the Art of the West 1250-1350.



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