17. Praying the Rosary in 17th-Century China

By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)

Basking in the sacred light, the Virgin Mary is greeted by Gabriel in an oriental wooden house ornamented with delicate lines and patterns (fig. 1). This unique Annunciation, as one of the fifteen hybridised images, appeared in a seventeenth-century print for Chinese rosary prayers. Its source version was Evangelicae historiae imagines, which was published in 1593 (fig. 2). The Portuguese prelate João da Rocha (1565–1623) is believed to have ‘translated’ these copperplates into indigenous-inspired woodcuts in Nanjing, a vibrant city in East China. This endeavour was completed in around 1620, after the local persecution of Christians which erupted in 1616 when European missionaries were arrested and repatriated to Macao.

The illustration here exemplified the adaptive and mediated strategies in Catholic missions to China. The original shabby house was substituted by a gorgeous mansion, reflecting the status of its potential readership – literati, officials, and the wealthy. Retaining the two figures, the artist recreated the pictorial milieu by accommodating various elements, ranging from the carved bed to the landscape screen, from the private garden outside to the diving bird in place of the angel. All of these were achieved through woodblock printing, a widely-used technique in China at that time. This localisation of print culture is also reflected in the layout of images and texts for rosary praying, as prevailing Chinese novels were usually formatted in a similar way. Representing hybridised and localised visual culture in overseas missions, these holy images thus illuminate the impetus of cultural translation in early modern global encounters.

Further reading:

Rui Oliveira Lopes, ‘Jesuit Visual Culture and the Song Nianzhu Guicheng. The Annunciation as a Spiritual Meditation on the Redemptive Incarnation of Christ’, Art in Translation 12, no. 1 (2020): 82–113.

Gianni Criveller, Preaching Christ in Late Ming China (Taipei: Tapei Ricci Institute, 1997).

Images: fig. 1 is from Gallica, the digital library of Bibliothèque nationale de France, see João da Rocha, Song Nianzhu Guicheng 誦念珠規程 [The Method of the Rosary], n.d.; fig. 2 is from archive.org, digitalised by the Getty Research Institute, see Jérôme Nadal et al., Evangelicae historiae imagines (Antwerp, 1593).

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