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Jesuit artists' work in China lights up US

American museums showcase the works of 18th century missionaries who worked for the imperial court

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Published: July 10, 2019 05:53 AM GMT

Updated: July 10, 2019 05:56 AM GMT

Jesuit artists' work in China lights up US

Giuseppe Castiglione’s painting The Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armor on Horseback. (Photo from Wikipedia)

A rare display by two Jesuit missionaries to China whose artwork was in the past largely seen only by royalty and high government officials has delighted American art lovers.

The Empresses of China's Forbidden City exhibit, which has been on display at the Freer-Sackler galleries, the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art in Washington, included the work of Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Ignatius Sichelbarth, 18th century missionaries who offered their artistic services to the imperial court.

"This assemblage of objects has never been seen before," said Jan Stuart, a historian and the gallery's curator of Chinese art. "They will be all be packed up and sent away and never be looked at again — at least not this way."

Most of the paintings and objects on display were in the past only seen inside the Forbidden City, a palace complex where China's emperors and their families lived from the 1400s until the early 1900s.

The Washington exhibit focused on the lives of the powerful women who unofficially ruled or greatly influenced the emperors and showed a rare trove of objects that included wedding robes, wall-size portraits of the women, jewelry and daily household items, such as plates with colors that only women in certain ranks could use.

"I could tell you the favorite cake recipe of an 18th century emperor, but I can't give you much detail about the daily life of the empresses," said Stuart, explaining that art offers some of the few clues historians have about the lives of the empresses in an otherwise male-centered record of Chinese royal history. Jesuits such as Castiglione were some of the few to document, in paintings, part of the life of the empresses and other women of the royal court.

The Italian Jesuit Castiglione, who adopted the name Lang Shining (Peace of the World), had one of the most commanding portraits of the women in the exhibit, a wall-size hanging silk screen of the saffron-robed Empress Xiaozhuang, painted around 1750, which depicts her holding a strand of beads, almost like a rosary, referencing her great influence in spreading Buddhism as the prevalent religion of the court.

Castiglione's portrait shows her with legs spread under the robe, a commanding athletic appearance, shoes peeking out, "sitting in a pose like a man," said Stuart.

"She was greatly revered to have this size portrait," she said. "Look how large it is, look how loud it is. She's sitting in a throne with dragons. ... You can see in this portrait, she had it all: strategy and a certain health and a religious dimension in her life, she had it all."

Castiglione's work took up a second wall at the gallery with a ceiling-to-floor screen portrait of Empress Xiaoyichun, consort of Emperor Qianlong with the future Emperor Jiaqing as a child, believed to have been painted in the 1760s. The painting, which looks as if the mother and child are looking at the viewer from the bottom window of a two-story structure was created for private quarters, Stuart said. The spread curtains on the top floor give the sensation that the viewer is looking at a large window leading to the outdoors with a lake and mountains in the distance.

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Chinese royalty sought out artists that would bring a different and worldly perspective to their lives, Stuart said, and Brother Castiglione's paintings, while maintaining a Chinese style, brought something different to the interior of the palace.

Castiglione also had a smaller but equally notable oil on paper portrait of the Empress Xiaoxian, wife of Emperor Qianlong, in the exhibit. Painted around 1736, the portrait focuses solely on the face of the empress set in a charcoal-colored background. 

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