The Jesus Sutras (Part 8): The Virgin “Mo Yan”

(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

Chinese Madonna and Child

Tang Yin, Madonna and Child, c. 1500-23. Watercolor on silk. Housed in the Field Museum, Chicago.

Virgin and Child

Salus Populi Romani (Protectress of the Roman People), 8th-13th century (disputed). Borghese Chapel, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

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. 

Guanyin and Child

Guanyin and Child, Tzu Chi Foundation Hospital, Hualien, Taiwan. Photo: Allen Timothy Chang



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.

Chinese Annunciation

John Lu Hung Nien (Lu Hongnian), The Annunciation to Mary, 1948. Chinese watercolor on silk, 28.5 x 53 cm.

Chinese Nativity

John Lü Shih-yun, The Birth of Jesus, 1948. Chinese watercolor on silk, 40 x 74.5 cm.

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.

Chinese Christian art

Chu Kar Kui (Gary Chu), Holy Mary, Empress of China, 1990s? Oil on canvas, 150 x 100 cm. Installed in the North Church in Beijing, China.

Chinese Madonna

John Lu Hung Nien, Our Lady of China, 1914. A popular image used on Chinese Catholic prayer cards, this painting was replicated in 2002 as a mosaic, installed at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC. For a variation by the same artist, see Madonna and Child Amidst the Clouds.

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.

Read Part 9: Refuge and Return.

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10 Responses to The Jesus Sutras (Part 8): The Virgin “Mo Yan”

  1. Songbill says:

    Thank you so much for this section (part 8) on the history of the unique Chinese enculturation and interpretation of the persona expressed in the West, even to the the point of adoration (particularly among Catholics worldwide), as the “Virgin Mary” or “Blessed Mother”. I own one of the several original paintings of the “Chinese madonna with child” theme painted by Lu Hung Nien (Lu Hongnian) (陸 鴻 年), who you mention in your article and several of whose other paintings you show in your article. The silk painting original which I own has been in my family for over 60 years. I have done a lot of research on Lu Hongnian and this Guanyin-like persona theme that seemingly so captivated his mind while an art student, and later a professor, in the 1930’s and 1940’s at Furen University in Beijing, when he was first introduced to Christianity. My research has led me down fascinating paths of discovery and insight into both Lu Hongnian and his Chinese art.
    One of his other originals of the “Madonna with child” theme, as he envisioned it, is located at DVM Missionary headquarters in Techny, Illinois where it was brought by Cardinal Tien in 1951, shortly after the Communist Revolution, and has remained ever since. That silk painting original was briefly brought to Rome in 2000, blessed by Pope John Paul II, and then used as a model for the commissioning and creation of a huge marble mosaic replica, now known as “Our Lady of China”, that is currently on a wall at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church building/cathedral in the Americas, located in Washington, D.C. Anyone interested in seeing images of the mosaic can Google the phrase “Our Lady of China” along with the word “Basilica”. It was commissioned and paid for by donations from thousands of Chinese-Americans across the US. The theme remains highly revered by Chinese Catholics not only in the US but also in China itself today.

    • Thank you very much for this information. I updated the article with the attributions you pointed out. (It’s helpful to know alternate transliterations of Chinese names!) How exciting that your family has in its possession one of Lu Hongnian’s original paintings. May I ask how you acquired it? I think it’s fun to trace a work’s history. Thanks again for sharing. And if you know of any websites that catalog Chinese Christian art, or even just Chinese Madonna portraits, I’d be interested to know.

      • Songbill says:

        For an informative history of Chinese Christian art, you can visit the following website:
        The Ricci Institute website that you list in your article is probably the best online display of Chinese Christian art, although the Institute’s display is pretty much limited to the trove of scroll paintings from Furen University that were “discovered” in 1997 in an old trunk in France by a Jesuit priest. Much of the Furen University’s Christian art that left China and is now in the West was moved either at the time of the Japanese invasion of China in the early 1940’s or in the immediate years after the Communist takeover in 1949. Deported or fleeing missionaries, priests, and bishops (some being Chinese, some being Westerners) brought the Christian art with them. The most well-known of these are Dr. William Pettus, who had an enormous impact on higher education in China during his 30 years there (1910-1942), and Chinese Catholic Cardinal Tien, DVM, who took up residency in Techny, Illinois in 1951. Dr. Pettus was particularly enamored with the Christian artwork of the brilliant young artists at Furen University Art Department, including Lu Hung Nien (1914-1989). The Communists also certainly recognized the masterful talent, as Lu Hung Nien went on to have an illustrious art career and prestigious assignments in China, albeit without the Christian themes, throughout the four decades after Communist takeover in 1949.
        My father (who has been dead many years now) worked in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s with a group that had a connection to Furen University and it is as a result that he became the owner of this particular Lu Hung Nien painting. It has been a family treasure ever since. Unfortunately, Furen University no longer exists in Beijing. It was folded in to Beijing University in 1952 by the Communists, although Furen had the second largest enrollment of any college in China and held enormous prestige prior to the Communist takeover.

    • Jean Wong says:

      I want to thank you. Jean Wong

  2. Songbill says:

    Please note that your “update” entry is shown below the Ricci Institute’s Lu Hung Nien’s painting that they call “Madonna and Child Amidst The Clouds” and which is on display at the Institute in San Francisco, CA. However, the Basilica’s mosaic is actually based on a different yet similar Lu Hung Nien Madonna painting that is located at DVM Missionary headquarters in Techny, Illinois. You can find an image of that Lu Hung Nien painting on the web by Googling “Our Lady of China”.

  3. Apart from the quoted Sutra, the art has little to do with the Nestorians, who were (in?)famous for objecting to the term “Mother of God”.

  4. Googling around for Mishisuo I found that the most common rendering for messiah in Chinese is “mishihe”.

  5. Thanks for this very interesting article & responses. Another good resource for Chinese Christian art is the Asian Christian Art Association, which of course offers the work of artists from al over the continent and the Pacific islands. They helped in the creation of 3 wonderful books on Asian art (& Africa in the 3rd one Christ for All People.
    The Chinese artist He Qi also has his own website.

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