(For an introduction to this series, read Part 1.)
So God caused the Cool Breeze to come upon a chosen young woman called Mo Yan, who had no husband, and she became pregnant. The whole world saw this, and understood what God had wrought. The power of God is such that it can create a bodily spirit and lead to the clear, pure path of compassion. Mo Yan gave birth to a boy and called him Ye Su, who is the Messiah and whose father is the Cool Breeze.
—Sutra of Jesus Christ 5:1-4
The scroll painting to the left is the earliest extant Madonna and Child portrait from China. It depicts the infant Jesus with a forelock knotted in the Chinese style, making a blessing gesture with his right hand. Scholars believe it is based on copies of the famous painting Salus Populi Romani, which, it is believed, Franciscan missionaries brought to China in the thirteenth century.
Chinese tradition has long revered a Madonna-like figure named Guanyin (known as Kannon in Japan) as the Goddess of Compassion and Mercy and protectress of women and children. Buddhists consider her a bodhisattva; Taoists, an Immortal. Art historian Lauren Arnold said that before Franciscan missionaries arrived in China, Guanyin 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.’” So, the Chinese likely adapted the iconography of Guanyin to create early icons of the Virgin Mary. But the exchange, the borrowing, quickly became reciprocal.
Then later—I’m not sure exactly when—Christian narrative paintings started developing in China, depicting, for instance, the Annunciation and Nativity. Below are two twentieth-century examples. See The Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History for more like them.
The book Each with His Own Brush by Daniel Fleming contains twenty-seven beautiful Chinese Christian paintings (reproduced in black-and-white) not available for viewing anywhere online, each with a short description/commentary. One of my favorites is Lu Hung Nien’s The Lantern Festival (not pictured in this article), which shows Mary holding baby Jesus and celebrating the Chinese New Year along with other children from the village. It’s a perfect example of contextualized art.
Here’s an excerpt from the book’s introduction:
When Christianity leaves Palestine and enters another culture, a decision has to be made as to whether one should aim at historical, ethnological and archaeological accuracy when painting biblical scenes, or whether local models and backgrounds may be used with the main interest liturgical or spiritual. . . . All would say that whatever is historically unique in Christianity cannot submit to regional modification. But the immediate question is whether the symbolic picturing of Christ as incarnate in every land is such an unjustified modification.
The paintings in the book depict well-known episodes from the life of Christ: the Woman at the Well, the Calming of the Storm, Washing the Disciples’ Feet, the Raising of Lazarus. Some paintings illustrate the parables Jesus taught, like the parable of the ten virgins, or the story of the prodigal son.
But one of the most common depictions is of the Virgin Mary. She is depicted variously as “Queen of the Heavenly Choir,” “Star of the Sea,” “Madonna of the Rising Sun,” “Madonna of the Moon Window,” “Madonna of the Snowy Willow Tree,” and so on.
It seems that all cultures have a certain affinity for the Virgin, probably in part because there’s comfort in the image of a mother who loves and nurtures and protects.
But, coming back full circle to the earlier Jesus Sutra passage, it’s interesting to see how it corroborates the biblical account of the Virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18-24)—how Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And how since before his birth, the title “Messiah” (Mishisuo) belonged to him.