Old scroll reveals Chinese madonna
By Ron Grossman
By Ron Grossman
CHICAGO — A pair of conservators at the Field Museum slowly unrolled an old Chinese scroll that dramatically showed how far the Christian faith has traveled since that first Christmas in Bethlehem.
Though the delicate watercolor of a madonna and child is among the oldest artistic evidence 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. Its 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 participants in the first nativity scene presumably looked like the contemporary Semitic peoples of the Middle East. Shortly afterward, Christianity moved into the wider world of Greece and Rome — as reflected by the madonna of the Field Museum's scroll, who looks like she stepped out of a Byzantine portrait. During the Middle Ages, missionaries carried the faith across mountains and deserts to China, where the scroll's artist gave Jesus the look of the child next door.
"He wanted to make it clear that Christianity was a universal religion," Bronson theorized.
He added that the scroll, painted on paper and backed with cloth, also survived the ups and downs the faith went through in China, only to be subject to the vicissitudes of modern scholarship.
It was brought to Chicago by Berthold Laufer, a museum staffer who bought it in 1910 from a prominent family in Singan, China, that had owned it for many generations. Laufer was something of an Indiana Jones, a freewheeling scholar with a taste for exotic travel. He was one of the few American academics of his day to speak Chinese (in addition to eight other Asian languages). He believed the scroll dated to the 17th century, when Jesuit missionaries were known to have arrived in China.
Laufer didn't, however, compare notes with scholars of religion. Most then were clergy and he had a decided distaste for men of the cloth. He dismissed the inspiration for the madonna scroll as that "wretched, hypocritical Christian religion."
In the scroll's lower left corner are two Chinese characters representing the name of a famed artist, Tang Yin, who lived from about 1470 to 1523. Because that was before the Jesuit period, Laufer decided the signature was a forgery, subsequently added to protect the painting's owners during a period when Christianity was suppressed in China.
Chinese emperors sometimes declared missionaries and converts personae non gratis, Bronson noted. Religious attachments to Rome were seen as disloyalty.
"At those times, it wasn't good for your career to keep a Christian symbol in your family shrine," Bronson explained.
So a Chinese family with Christian roots could either destroy the evidence of their piety or disguise it — in the case of the madonna scroll, by adding the name of a noted artist who presumably lived before the time of the Christian missions.
Thus Tang Yin's "distinguished name was in every respect a charm and amulet which saved the life of this memorable painting," Laufer wrote.
But in more recent decades, opinion about the scroll has shifted, noted Lauren Arnold, an art historian and fellow of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco.
First, scholars noticed a striking similarity between the scroll and a famous painting, "Salus Populi Romani," in a church in Rome. It seemed likely that missionaries had carried a copy of the earlier work to China, where it, in turn, was copied by the scroll's artist.
Arnold said that prototype arrived long before Laufer's date for the scroll. She explained that since his time, scholars have become more aware that the Jesuits weren't the first to missionize the East.
Nestorian Christians were there perhaps as early as the 5th century; Franciscans arrived during the time of the famed Mongol emperor Kublai Khan.
Then the history of Christianity in China gets obscure, until the Jesuit missions, hundreds of years later.
"To me, the Field Museum's scroll is the missing link," said Arnold, author of "Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China and Its Influence on the Art of the West 1250-1350."
She noted that Chinese tradition long revered a madonna-like figure, Guanyin (also called Kwan Yin), a goddess of mercy. However, before missionaries arrived, she was depicted as a solitary figure.
"Then the Franciscans arrive, and suddenly Guanyin is given a male child," Arnold said. "When the Franciscans brought pictures of a madonna and child, the Chinese must have said, 'Wow! We can relate to that.' "
The scroll, she added, shows that cultural transformation: Guanyin has morphed into the Virgin, and Jesus has been transformed into a Chinese infant. Arnold thinks Laufer got it wrong: the signature on the scroll truly is that of a 15th-century artist. To her mind, it shows that China had incorporated Christian ideas by that period.
The story of the scroll, she said, has a universal appeal. Arnold feels its tug, especially at this time of year.
"The New Testament tells the story of a teenage mother, traveling with her husband, there's no room at the inn, they're homeless; then shepherds and kings appear, and their fortunes go from the lowest to the highest," Arnold said. "The scroll's image, a mother nurturing and caring for a child — who doesn't that resonate to?"