Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendour

National Heritage Board, Singapore

Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

About the Exhibition
Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendour presents fascinating and beautiful objects that are the result of the spread of the Christian faith across Asia. This is the first, large-scale exhibition in the world dedicated to the theme of Christianity in Asia. Many of the objects were made by artists who were not themselves Christian, and some of the patrons for this art were not Christian either.In this exhibition, you will see art that combines East and West. Asian materials and techniques were used to create paintings, carved ivory figures, ceramics, furniture, altarpieces, and shrines that aided the spread of Christianity. Working with museums and private collections in Portugal, France, Italy, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, the Asian Civilisations Museum brings many of these stunning works to Singapore for the first time.Come see artistic treasures created in the service of Christianity throughout Asia.
Traders and Missionaries 
As Christianity spread across Asia, new works of art were created that were used to tell Christian stories, decorate churches, and motivate new believers. Asian Christian art often combines well-established European imagery with Asian artistic traditions.  Christianity has an ancient presence in Asia. Traders brought their faith when they settled in Central Asia, China, and India by the 7th century.   In the 16th century, the Portuguese established a sea route to Asia to trade for rare goods. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish brought Catholic missionaries with them. Goa, Macau, Manila, and Nagasaki became bases for trade and Christian missions. In the 17th century, the Dutch Protestants also began to seek converts in Southeast Asia, centred in Batavia (Jakarta).
Asian art with Christian themes 
Large numbers of Christian objects were commissioned in Asia, although few of the artists were actually Christian. Local artists worked in media and styles they knew best, and added their own elements to European subjects. For example, artists in Goa, Sri Lanka, and China excelled in ivory carving, and they shifted easily from Hindu and Buddhist subjects to Christian themes. Potters in China made porcelain images of the Virgin and Child with elements drawn from Buddhist Guanyin figures.   Christian art made in Asia had many different audiences. New churches and converts required images for services and private devotion. And many of the finer Asian works were exported to Europe and the Americas.  In addition, some patrons were not actually Christian themselves. Many Asian rulers took an interest in the religion, and collected Christian images even if they did not convert. These included the Islamic courts of Syria, Iran, and Mughal India; the Chinese imperial court; and warlords in Japan.

Virgin and Child with John the Baptist
Muhammad Zaman (active 1649–1700)
Iran, signed and dated 1682–83
Colour and gold on paper
Asian Civilisations Museum

The image is generally based on a European print, but the artist has imaginatively varied the scene by adding ruins and a building under construction in the background.

The openness of Iran to the outside world in the 17th century, especially during the reign of Shah Abbas II (reigned 1642–66), brought Europeans to the capital Isfahan. The influence of European works of art can be seen in the art of Iranian artists though their use of perspective, blended shading, and attention to Western motifs.

The presence of Christian subjects in Islamic art might be surprising, but the Virgin, Christ, and the Baptist are respected figures in Islam. This painting was probably made for a Muslim patron because it was added to an Islamic album containing drawings and calligraphies soon after it was made.

The Holy Spirit Descends on the Apostles and the Virgin at Pentecost
Sanvala (active around 1580–1606)
Mughal India, around 1600–1605
Colour on paper
Asian Civilisations Museum

After the death of Christ, the apostles and the Virgin Mary received the Holy Spirit (seen here in the form of a dove). Tongues of fire appeared on their heads, and they began to speak in many different languages. This subject was an ideal symbol for missionary work because it emphasizes that Christ’s teachings should be accessible to all people in their own language.

Candlestick with Christian scenes
Dawud ibn Salama al-Mawsili
Syria, signed and dated 1248–49
Copper allow inlaid with silver, black paste
Musée du Louvre, Paris, on long-term loan from the Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris

This candlestick was made under the Muslim Ayyubid dynasty, which ruled Egypt, Syria, and the Palestine. The form and decorative technique of silver inlay is typical of Islamic art. But the candlestick has numerous Christian scenes and saints. The circles around the base show scenes from the life of Christ, including the Baptism, Presentation in the Temple, and Marriage of Cana.

Similar objects were made for the Ayyubid sultan, which shows the court’s interest in Christianity and the spirit of tolerance during the period.

The inscription on the base of the neck reads: “Work of Dāwud ibn Salāma al-Mawṣilī in the year 646, longevity, happiness, longevity, splendour, longevity, blessings, praise”.

Chasuble
Tailored in Portugal, 17th century
Iranian, mid-16th century textile fragments featuring hunting scenes: silk lampas (red, black and gilt silver thread).
Perhaps Italian or Spanish, 15th-century textile fragments featuring mythical and other animals: silk lampas (green, red, white, and gilt silver thread).
Museu Abade de Baçal, Bragança

This chasuble – a vestment worn by priests celebrating Mass – shows how Catholics re-purposed exotic materials. Several different fragments of precious old textiles were used to construct this garment.

The medallions of red and gold silk look like those painted in double-page frontispieces of the finest Qur’ans copied in mid-16th-century Iran, during the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736). The gold and green parts feature mythical animals, evoking Chinese and Islamic art, as well as fish and birds with human features.

The worldwide demand for Asian art
Rare materials found in Asia – ivory, lacquer, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, and precious stones – were employed to make Christian art, using a variety of techniques that were then unknown in the West. Not surprisingly, these objects were often treated as luxury goods at the royal courts in Europe, and were subsequently sent around the world.  While many Asian Christian objects are based on European examples, they are not mere copies. Artists created imaginative variations, and interpreted subjects in innovative ways. For example, the subjects of the Christ Child and the Good Shepherd took on new forms in Asian art.

Virgin and Child
Sri Lanka, mid-16th century
Ivory
Asian Civilisations Museum

This Christian sculpture was carved in ivory by a Buddhist artist in Sri Lanka in the late 16th century. It is the largest known of this type, and also one of the most refined and elegant. Sri Lankan elements are seen in the jewellery and the robes, which resemble those worn by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka.

Another Buddhist element added to this sculpture is the trivali on the necks of the Virgin and Jesus. These three incised lines are distinguishing marks of the Buddha. Their presence reveals that the local artist also perceived the Virgin and Child as important religious figures.

Shrine with a painting of Holy Family with John the Baptist
Japan, late 16th century
Shrine: lacquer and gold on wood, mother-of-pearl. Painting: oil on copper
Museu des Artes Decorativas, Lisbon, Fundação Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva

Japanese lacquerware was greatly admired around the world. Luminous surfaces were often decorated with intricate patterns of gold and mother-of-pearl. This shrine encloses a Christian painting probably made at the Painting School set up by the Jesuits in Japan to produce art for the growing Christian communities in Japan and Asia.

Decorated with the Jesuit emblem on the pediment, it could have been made for a variety of clients, for example, wealthy Japanese Christians, or European or Japanese Jesuit priests. Moreover, such shrines were exported to Europe, Mexico, and the rest of Asia.

Lectern
Possibly China, Macau, around 1580
Silver, wood, 51 x 39 cm
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Casket
Perhaps India, Goa, 2nd half of the 16th century
Gold, traces of enamel
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

This casket was used in Eucharistic rituals. It held the host and was placed inside a tortoiseshell casket; both were then placed within an enormous rock crystal chest to create an awe-inspiring presence on the altar during the Mass.

Made in gold filigree, the overall scheme of geometric patterns and rosettes resembles Islamic ornamentation. The lock was once enamelled in green and red. The casket was given in the early 17th century to an Augustinian monastery in honour of Afonso de Albuquerque, governor of Portuguese India from 1509 to 1515.

India
Christianity was established in India as early as the 7th century, probably through traders from the Persian Gulf. Called Saint Thomas Christians, this community flourished in southern India.   Catholic missions under the Portuguese After Goa came under Portuguese rule in 1510, Christian conversion and the building of churches was so impressive that the city was called the “Rome of the East”. Artists of many faiths produced Christian images that were needed by the Catholic orders. Sri Lankan artists were noted as fine ivory carvers, and artists in Gujarat and Goa made inlaid furniture and silver objects. Many were of such high quality that they were exported around the world.

Virgin and Child
Mughal India, around 1600
Ivory
Museu de São Roque, Lisbon

This is one of the few ivory sculptures known that might be connected with the Mughal court. The cloak and pose of the Virgin closely resemble a marble sculpture made at Agra, probably by a Mughal court artist. The sculpture is also similar to a drawing by Manohar, exhibited nearby.

Compared to Goa and Sri Lanka, the Mughal court did not produce many artworks in ivory. However, when Emperor Jahangir visited the Jesuits in Agra, he was impressed by the sculptures he saw, and immediately ordered versions made in ivory.

Good Shepherd
India, Goa, 17th century
Ivory
Asian Civilisations Museum

The Christ Child is portrayed as the Good Shepherd in this ivory sculpture. He sits atop a mountain decorated with lily stalks, with lambs all around. Caves in the mountain contain figures including Mary Magdalene, Saint Jerome, and Christ’s parents Mary and Joseph. God the Father is in the clouds above.

The Good Shepherd was one of the most common themes made in ivory imagery in Goa. Individuals as well as churches bought these images. They were also exported to Asia and Europe.

Jesus being crucified
Illustration to the Mirror of Holiness
Mughal India, Allahabad, around 1602–4
Gouache and gold on paper
Asian Civilisations Museum

The painting illustrates the moment when Jesus is crucified at Mount Calvary. At the foot of the cross is a skull, said to be that of Adam. The onlookers are dressed in Portuguese and European costumes.

China
The earliest evidence of Christianity in China appears in the 7th century, when the Tang emperor officially recognized the Church of the East. This spirit of tolerance was periodically revived, for example by the Wanli Emperor around 1600, by the Kangxi Emperor (who issued another edict of tolerance in 1692), and the Qianlong Emperor in the 18th century.   The charismatic Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) and other Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the late 16th century. Ricci dressed as a Confucian scholar, and used his vast knowledge of science to gain favour with scholar officials. He attempted to incorporate Confucianism and Chinese ancestral rituals into his preaching. This method of accommodation was initially rejected by the Franciscan and Dominican orders.  China produced porcelain and ivory carvings with Christian subjects, much of it for export to the West through Macau and Guangzhou. And Chinese embroidered silks were used as liturgical vestments.

Tea bowl and saucer with Martin Luther
China, Jingdezhen, around 1746
Porcelain
Asian Civilisations Museum

Martin Luther (1483–1546), a German theologian, is best known for leading the Protestant Reformation of the Christian church in 1517. His revolutionary actions resulted in the division of western Christianity between Roman Catholicism and the new Protestant traditions.

This tea bowl and saucer comes from a set that stylistically dates to the middle of the 18th century, and so may have been commissioned for the bicentenary of Luther’s death in 1746.

Bedcover with a double-headed eagle
China, probably Guangzhou, 1730–40
White satin, polychrome silk and gold-paper-wrapped thread embroidery
Asian Civilisations Museum

The central motif of a crowned double-headed eagle was long associated with the Habsburg dynasty. It is found throughout the Spanish empire, and in Portugal, which was under the Habsburg rule between 1580 and 1640. The motif was also used by the Augustinians, in association with the heart pierced by an arrow.

In the corners of the central rectangle are guardian lions, a distinctly Chinese motif introduced by the embroiderers.

Virgin and Child
China, Dehua, 1690–1710
Porcelain
Asian Civilisations Museum, Gift of Agnes Tan Kim Lwi in memory Tun Tan Cheng Lock

Although made for Christian markets in Asia and the West, these Virgin and Child sculptures were inspired by figures of Guanyin, the Chinese deity based on the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. When depicted with a child, she was known as the “giver of children”, so it was natural for the potters of Dehua, in Fujian province, where these were made, to adapt their models for Christian purposes.

One of the figures of the Virgin wears a cross. The other sculpture shows the Christ Child holding a globe with a cross, symbolizing his status as saviour of the world.

Portrait of Matteo Ricci
You Wenhui
(Emmanuele Pereira, 1575–1633)
China, Beijing, 1610
Oil on canvas, 120 x 95 cm
Patrimonio del Fondo Edi ci di Culto, amministrato dal Ministero dell’Interno,
on loan to Chiesa del SS. Nome di Gesù, Rome [n. 68]

The artist of this portrait, Emmanuele Pereira, born You Wenhui 游文辉, is reported to have come from a Christian family in Macau and been educated in a local Jesuit school. He went to Japan where he was taught painting by Giovanni Niccolò. He was then sent to China in 1598 to assist Matteo Ricci. It is the only known portrait of Ricci made by an artist who knew him.

大西西泰利先生行迹 Daxi xitai li xiansheng xingji (The life and work of Matteo Ricci, Xitai)
Giulio Aleni (1582–1649)
China, Fuzhou, 1630
Woodcut on rice paper
Bibliothèque nationale de Paris

Giulio Aleni, an Italian Jesuit priest, was sent in 1610 to China. A mathematician and astronomer, he developed close connections with Chinese scholars. Aleni founded the Jesuit mission in Fujian province, where he also published several books, including a religious treatise in Chinese and this biography of Matteo Ricci.

Bureau shrine
China, probably Guangzhou, 1730s
Wood, gold, lacquer, silver, brass
Ivory sculpture of Christ on the Cross: India, Goa, late 17th or early 18th century
Asian Civilisations Museum

Guangzhou produced beautifully decorated lacquer furniture for export in the 18th and 19th centuries. But this is the only known Chinese lacquer bureau made as a Christian shrine.

This piece is derived from an early 18th-century English form called a “secretary” or a “bureau bookcase”. The front of the lower section folds down to create a desk. The interior is enhanced with red and gold lacquer for the serpentine columns and framing elements.

The Crucified Christ was carved in Goa around 1700; and figures of Saint Francis and Saint Anthony are replacements. The cross at the top and the crowned double-headed eagle (emblem of the Augustinian Order) signal the special function of the piece.

Japan
Christianity in Japan grew as part of a symbiosis of trade and evangelism. Jesuit missionaries arrived with Portuguese traders in 1549, and other orders later followed. Until around 1600, Catholic missionaries had great success. But trade disputes and internal Japanese political developments caused it all to unravel. A series of persecutions and prohibitions led to the execution of Catholics (most of them Japanese) in 1597, and the banning of most foreigners from the country in 1643.   After nearly 300 years, the ban against Christianity was lifted. Some hidden Christians re-emerged to reconnect with the Catholic faith, but others continued to worship in secret. 

Martyrdom of Nagasaki, 1622
Probably, China, Macau, mid-17th century
Colour on paper
Patrimonio del Fondo Edifici di Culto, amministrato dal Ministero dell’Interno, on loan to Chiesa del SS. nome di Gesù, Rome

This painting depicts the mass killing at Nagasaki in 1622, when more than 55 Christians were executed. The victims included Europeans, Japanese, and Koreans. Missionaries are tied to stakes in a fire pit; men with swords are decapitating Christian families. The crowd included Europeans, Chinese, and Africans, as well as Japanese.

The painting might have been made in Macau by an artist from the Jesuit Painting School in Japan. The precise details suggest that it was painted by an eyewitness. The trees in back are reminiscent of those on Japanese screen paintings, and this work may originally have been mounted as a scroll or screen.

Folding lectern with the Jesuit monogram
Japan, late 16th century
Lacquer, mother-of-pearl
Private collection

All surfaces of this book stand are coated with lacquer enhanced with gold and mother-of-pearl designs. The Jesuit emblem is prominent in the decoration.

An elaborate lectern of this type, emblazoned the symbol of a religious order, was likely meant to support a missal, the book of texts and instructions used to celebrate Mass.

Crucified Christ
Probably Japan, early 17th century
Ivory, traces of paint
Asian Civilisations Museum

Religious figures were carved in ivory throughout the Asian world, so deciphering their point of origin is difficult, but certain characteristics here suggest Japan. The long wavy hair is typical of Japanese depictions of foreigners, and the folds of the loincloth are distinct from carvings made elsewhere. The personality of the face strongly suggests a Japanese sculptor.

Southeast Asia
The Philippines and East Timor (Timor-Leste) are overwhelmingly Catholic countries, and there is a substantial Christian population in Singapore. Christian communities were also established on Flores, and among the Karen in Myanmar, Bataks on Sumatra, and the Minahassa on Sulawesi. Francis Xavier led a mission to the Molucca Islands in 1546–47.   In Vietnam Catholic missionary success preceded French colonialism. In 1862 they forced the Vietnamese to cede southern Vietnam, partly justified by the goal of protecting French Vietnamese Catholic converts from persecution.   By 1900 conversion was regarded as a tool for social transformation, bringing modernity and greater state control to isolated groups in the interior who practised indigenous beliefs rooted in animism and ancestor veneration. 

Christ Child, Saviour of the World
Philippines, Manila, mid-17th century
Ivory
Asian Civilisations Museum

Christ is depicted here as “Saviour of the World”. He makes the gesture of blessing with his right hand.

This sculpture was very likely made by Chinese ivory artists from Fujian who settled in Manila. Their work was highly prized and much of it was sent on Spanish galleons to Mexico, and then to the rest of Latin America and Spain. There is close attention to anatomical details like the folds of flesh associated with babies, and the deeply carved curls of hair.

Saint Jerome
Philippines, Manila, late 17th or early 18th century
Ivory
Intramuros Administration Collection, Manila

Saint Jerome kneels and holds the stone he used to beat his chest in penance for the visions of pleasure he experienced. His heavy robes create a powerful image that can be admired from all sides.

Born in Dalmatia in the 4th century, Jerome was one of the four Doctors of the Latin Church. He is credited as the author of the Latin translation of the Bible, and is often portrayed as an old hermit in penitence.

Saint Joseph holding the Christ Child
Virgin of Mount Carmel
Philippines, 19th century
Wood, ivory, hair, silver, various textiles
Asian Civilisations Museum

The faces, hands, and feet of these figures are carved of ivory. The bodies consist of simple wooden frames, intended only as supports for the elaborate textiles and objects. The hair and eyelashes appear to be made of real hair.

Saint Joseph carries the Christ Child and a staff of sprouting lilies. The Virgin is shown as the Virgin of Mount Carmel, the patroness of the Order of Carmelites, because she holds scapulars (panels of cloth connected by bands).

Archangel Michael vanquishing Satan
Northern Vietnam, 19th century
Painted wood, iron, glass
Asian Civilisations Museum

The archangel Michael, as an ancient Roman warrior, stands in victory over Satan, described in Revelations as a dragon. He probably once held a spear and a balance, to weigh souls at the Last Judgement.

Christian missionaries arrived in Vietnam as early as the 17th century, but large-scale conversion peaked only during the French colonial period, 1887 to 1940. Painted wooden figures of Christ, the Virgin, and various saints decorated churches. Some were imported from France but many, like this figure, were made by local artists.

Cross
Vietnam, 19th century
Rosewood, mother-of-pearl
Asian Civilisations Museum, Gift of Pedro Aguiar Branco

Vietnam produced a variety of wooden objects that were delicately inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These products included furniture for Southeast Asia as well as Christian objects such as this.

Virgin and Child
Timor-Leste, 19th century
Wood
Asian Civilisations Museum

The Virgin stands with Christ shown as a young boy, rather than the more common infant. The image is reminiscent of depictions of the Throne of Wisdom common in Europe around 1200. The sculptor might have modelled his work on a book illustration of the subject.

But the image of the Christ on the lap of the Virgin might have confused the carver. His solution was to place Christ, standing, on a small mound or stone in front of Mary. The garments loosely resemble those in Throne of Wisdom images, lending support to the theory that the image was based on a Western model.

Baby carrier with image of a mother and child and Marie Biscuit tin logo
Indonesia, Java, Pekalongan, around 1910
Cotton (batik)
Asian Civilisations Museum, Gift of Lim and Tan Securities Pte Ltd in memory of Johnny and Nancy Lim

The mother and child on this batik cloth evokes thoughts of mother goddess images in many cultures. It relates to the Christian Virgin and Child and the “child-giving Guanyin”, a Chinese adaptation of the Indian bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.

Probably produced by mixed Chinese Indonesian artisans who would have been familiar with both images, the cloth might have been made to appeal to both Buddhists and Christians. The amusingly misspelled biscuit logo references an imported European treat.

Peranakan Catholic shrine
Singapore, around 1900, modified around 1930
Gilded teak, painting on glass, mirrors
332.5 x 186 x 71.5 cm
Peranakan Museum. Purchase with funds from Friends of ACM through Gala Dinner 2005
[2005-01479]

Credits: Story

LENDERS

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
Casa-Museu Dr. Anastácio Gonçalves, Lisbon
Fondation Custodia, Paris
Fundação Medeiros e Almeida, Lisbon
Fundação Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva, Lisbon
Intramuros Administration, Manila
Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee, Singapore
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Ministero dell’Interno, Il Fondo per gli Edifici di Culto, Rome
Museu do Abade de Baçal, Bragança
Museu de Évora
Museu de São Roque, Lisbon
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon
National Library Board, Singapore
National Museum of Singapore
Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Coimbra
University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong
University of Santo Tomas, Manila

Private collections


Curators: Pedro Moura Carvalho, Alan Chong, Clement Onn

Design: Gallagher & Associates Asia

Exhibition: Regine Aw, Woo Mun Seng, Loh Pei Ying

At the Asian Civilisations Museum: Mei-yi Wee, Richard Lingner, Dave Alan Henkel, Mazlan Anuar, Muhd Noor Aliff, Idris Salleh, Hanafi Ahmad, Nur Farah Atiqah Ismail, Jenna Goh, Melissa Viswani, Cherry Thian, Sharinita Ismail, Vijaya Pawade, Tang Ying Chun, Jeff Chong, Ng Wan Gui, Charlotte Chow, Nur Rasyiqah Nabilah Muhamamad Rashid, Shiya Zhuo


Special Thanks
Ambassador of Portugal, Luis Lorvão
Ambassador of Italy, Paolo Crudele
Voilah!, French Festival Singapore, Italian Cultural Institute Singapore

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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