He who is learning to paint must first learn to still his heart, thus to clarify his understanding and increase his wisdom. - From the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, 17th century.
Some of you might already be aware of the conversion of a 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 medieval illuminated manuscripts that brought Yan to the Faith. She has a Chinese language blog, here, 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 Doaist 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 reflects also 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, 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 by it and chose to follow. She is responding to a gift, freely given. It is called evangelization!
Here's an unusual story. First of all a tip for anyone looking for brushes for icon painting. I was looking for a source for good cheap brushes to use with egg tempera. The usual recommendation is Kalinsky sable. These are very expensive watercolour brushes and made from sable hair (a sable is an animal, a Russian marten). If you use brushes for watercolour they will last a lifetime, but if you use them for egg tempera they quickly degrade because the paint is quite abrasive, made from pigment - which is effectively coloured grit - and egg yolk, diluted with water. This can become expensive quite quickly. Luckily, I discovered that Chinese painting brushes are an excellent but much cheaper alternative. They are made to come to a point for use with calligraphy and hold a large amount of paint, so are perfect for painting in egg tempera. I get my brushes from an online supplier called Good Characters, here. Another side of their business is doing a consultancy for people doing business in China - they develop company logos that will speak to the Chinese and give the right impression. As a regular customer, and as part of a promotion for this Andy Chuang who runs the company in California asked me if I wanted him to create a Chinese character for me. I thought about it and suggested this:
First of all the statement from Lao Tsu: ‘Man’s standards are conditioned by those of Earth, the standard of Earth by those of Heaven, the standard of Heaven by that of the Way [Tao] and the standard of the Way is that of its own intrinsic nature.’ (from Tao Te Ching, XXV (6th century BC)
Then I asked that this be juxtaposed with the scriptural quote: ‘I am the Way’ Jesus Christ, (John 14:6)
I thought maybe it would help evangelise China. Doaism has belief in heaven which is a non-material, spiritual place, but is an impersonal, empty heaven with no God. I thought that maybe putting these together might lead them to accept Christ as the fullness of what is believed.
Andy was very happy to oblige and sent me the following. First the Lao Tsu
and then from John's gospel
then he sent me a Chinese screen image into which I could insert them. My techie skills aren't up to it but I thought I would show it in case any readers want to make use of it.
Then he gave me the same script but in a more artistic arrangement of the letters:
and from the gospel:
So I encourage readers to share these to things together and spread the gospel in China. For once we wouldn't mind if Beijing was hacking this site!