When Italian missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in China in 1583, he carried a mission with him: to forge a bridge for cultural exchanges between the West and the East that could change the course of history. Ricci achieved success, his arrival marking the beginning of the spread of Western books and art in the late Ming dynasty in China, influencing generations of Chinese artists who were eager for inspiration.
Ricci took some religious paintings with him to China, four of which ended up in the hands of Cheng Dayue (1541-1616), an ink merchant and ink cake maker from Huizhou. Cheng asked Ricci for annotation of the paintings, and then added them to the “Ink Garden of the Cheng Family” catalogue that included decorative designs for inkstones and ink cakes. This catalogue, first published in 1605 with illustrations, would later go down in history for containing the earliest images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in China.
The following decades yielded more illustrated Catholic books, a period that started to see Western religious art being localized to appeal to the Chinese public.
Left: “Virgin Mary” in “Ink Garden of the Cheng Family,” 1605; Right: An illustration from “All images depicting the deeds of the Saviour,” a collection of woodcuts from Adolphe Vasseur (1828–1899).
Italian missionary Juliano Aleni arrived in China in 1613 and published “Illustrated Life of Jesus” in 1637. In the book, Aleni reproduced images from the Spanish Jesuit Jéronimo Nadal’s “Evangelicae Historiae Imagines,” copperplate engravings by Western artists, transforming them into Chinese-style illustrations better suited to the Chinese woodblock printing technique. In the illustrations, he retained Western features such as curly hair, high noses, and deep eyes for the subjects while giving them Chinese clothing and accessories. Each of the 56 illustrations came complete with an explanation in classical Chinese describing the scene.
The fusion of Western and Chinese arts continued into the early 20th century. Chinese artists from the Republican era (1911-1949) experimented with their traditional ink painting techniques to create portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, inspiring the rise of Chinese Catholic art. Fu Jen Catholic University, founded under the request of Pope Pius XI in Beijing in 1925, was a breeding ground for artists of this movement.
A group photo of artists from Fu Jen Catholic University, 1936. From left to right, Lu Hongnian, Wang Suda, Xu Jihua, Chen Yuandu, Chen Yuan (Fu Jen’s headmaster), Br. Berchmans Brückner, Zhang Huai (Dean of the School of Education), and Li Zhichao.
“The Virgin and the Child” and “The Birth of Jesus” by Chen Yuandu (1902-1967).
A key figure of this new art trend was Chen Yuandu (1902-1967), also known as Luke Chen. A fine art professor at Fu Jen Catholic University since 1933, Chen was a pioneer of using the brush-ink techniques from traditional Chinese paintings to produce biblical scenes.
In another portrait of Mary and Jesus, Chen adapted the halo — a radiant circle surrounding the head of a holy figure — with a Chinese flair. The halo is often found in religious paintings across cultures, from Christianity to Buddhism. People in China simply saw Virgin Mary as Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy in Chinese Buddhism. This local adaption of Virgin Mary inspired artists such as Zhang Shanzi to continue painting her as Guanyin to cater to the Chinese culture.
Left: “Blessed Virgin Mary” by Zhang Shanzi; Right: Details of “Virgin Mary” by Gu Yufeng.
During his tenure, Chen trained many Chinese artists such as Lu Hongnian, Wang Suda, and Xu Jihua. Their artworks were compiled into “Ars Sacra Pekinensis” and “The Life of Christ by Chinese Artists” that were later translated into English, French, and German. The art movement gained some interest in the West, with a LIFE magazine interview with Chen and Lu in 1941 introducing their Catholic-influenced Chinese paintings to Western readers. “While many artists before ... have painted Bible scenes in the native style, the Chinese do it with particular grace,” the writer wrote.
Lu Hongnian was one of the most celebrated Chinese Catholic painters, using ink and vivid colors to paint biblical scenes in the traditional Chinese manner. In his painting titled “Virgin Mary,” Lu painted a slender woman in traditional Chinese clothing surrounded by auspicious clouds. The piece mixes the thematic birth of Jesus with the traditional Chinese painting style.
“Virgin Mary” and “Annunciation” by Lu Hongnian (1919-1989).
“Last Supper” and “The Portrait of Virgin Mary” by Wang Suda (1910-1963).
Wang Suda, also a student of Chen’s, is known for using the brush-smudging technique to add Chinese elements to his religious paintings. He reinterpreted Da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper” in traditional Chinese style, featuring a table, stools, tableware, windows, lanterns, and clothing unique to China. In another painting, Wang depicted the Virgin Mary as a Ming dynasty empress, who wore an extremely intricate and splendid dragon-and-phoenix crown, symbols reserved for the emperor and empress.
The Virgin Mary and Jesus inspired other forms of art and were featured in Henan opera. To localize the nativity scene for the Chinese people, the song “Jesus Baby” described the birth of Jesus in the Chinese city of Zhumadian instead of Bethlehem, and the three wise men brought apples, meat, and noodles instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The song goes:
Three days after the winter solstice, Jesus was born in Zhumadian.
Three celestials sent a box of apples, as well as five jin of meat and ten jin of noodles.
The little maid held the red egg in her hand, and Joseph was busy rolling out the dumpling wrapper.
The shopkeeper sent ginger water with brown sugar and shouted:
“Sister Maria, drink it and you won’t be afraid of the wind and cold.”
When Ricci came to China to spread Christian teaching in the 16th century, he was well aware of the importance of adapting to Chinese customs. The Chinese went on to take Christianity into their own hands, reinterpreting symbols to suit their folk culture for celebrating Christmas in their own unique way.
Details of “The Last Supper” by Chen Yuandu, published by Cath. University Press. From Henry Luce Foundation/Boston University
“Virgin and Child” by Lu Hongnian.
A painting of Jesus, Confucius, and Sakyamuni by Wang Suda, 1933.
“Flight into Egypt” by Ren Yifang.
“Madonna of Lourdes” by Zhang Shanzi.
“The Virgin” by Zheng Mukang.
Translator: Ding Yining; editor: Elise Mak.
(In-text images: All the images are from the public domain, collected and provided by Sheng Wenqiang, unless otherwise noted.)
(Header image: “Virgin Mary” by Lu Hongnian.)