Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Chinese Artist Converts Through Study of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

Some of you might already be aware of the conversion of Chinese artist Yan Zu to Catholicism, as recounted on National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency. A Dominican friar from the Western Province who is from Taiwan originally recently brought this story to my attention.

It was the study of European art history, and specifically of medieval illuminated manuscripts, that brought Yan to the Faith. She has a Chinese language blog from which these images of her own work are taken.

This story is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, I am wondering if this is further indication of a natural affinity between Chinese and European figurative art, that allows for mutual influence to occur very easily. (I wrote about this in detail here.) The style of the traditional Chinese landscape is formed by a Daoist worldview in which the material world directs us through its beauty to heaven, which is a non-material realm of perfect order. Christian artists of the West might articulate just the same goal for their landscape painting, especially those painting in the baroque tradition. The difference is that for the Christian, Heaven is occupied, so to speak, by God and his Saints and Angels.

Second, it seems to suggest that traditional Christian culture is as much universal as it is specific to particular times and places. If we were set the task in advance of dreaming up an art form that would convert Chinese people, many would say that we should adapt something that is of the Chinese culture into a form that speaks more directly of Christianity. I certainly think this approach has its place when done with discernment. However, it is clear that this Christian art form with no Chinese connection at all, and which originated in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, spoke powerfully and eloquently to this Chinese lady.

While I do think that there are geographic and time-bound elements that characterize all aspects of the culture, I have never been of the view that these are the only influences. Christian culture also reflects the Faith, which is universal - that is, it is true for all people. So I would say that traditional Western European culture, for example, looks as it does because it is Christian and to a large degree would have looked the same if it had originated in the southern tip of Africa. This being so, and to the degree that any art form is Christian, it will speak to people in all ages and places. This means, therefore, that exporting Western European culture (or Christian Eastern European culture, or Christian Middle Eastern culture for that matter) to the rest of the world is not cultural imperialism, as some might suggest. Nobody forced Yan down this route, she was attracted to it and chose to follow. She is responding to a gift, freely given. It is called evangelization!

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