The University Museum and Art Gallery (UMAG) of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) owns the world’s largest collection of Nestorian Crosses, ornaments with decorative designs and religious motifs that were cast in the Ordos region of northwest China in the Yuan dynasty (1272-1368). To coincide with an international conference held last summer on Jing Jiao (the Chinese name for an indigenised form of Nestorianism in northern China) to celebrate of the mind-boggling 1,380th anniversary of the religion’s introduction into China, UMAG unveiled a much anticipated re-installation of more than 700 of their prized artefacts in its historic Fung Ping Shan Building. The extensive display of the Nestorian crosses categorises the pieces into four distinct stylistic groupings according to their formal characteristics and cultural and religious motifs.
As with many of UMAG’s artefacts, the Nestorian crosses came to be acquired by the museum through a fascinating story of provenance. FA Nixon, a British postal commissioner working in Beijing in the 1930s and 1940s, was the original collector who assembled the bronze crosses from various sources during his posting in China. Nixon’s collection was subsequently acquired by the Lee Hysan Foundation in Hong Kong, and in the late 1950s, came to the attention of Dr FS Drake, a scholar in the former Institute of Oriental Studies at HKU – who is now also the namesake of one of UMAG’s main galleries. As a result of Drake’s scholarly interest in the crosses, the Lee Hysan Foundation donated the whole collection to the HKU in 1961. Although the museum has owned the collection for more than five decades, it has been years since the crosses were last rigorously catalogued and curated for public display.
Many of UMAG’s 979 Nestorian crosses were unearthed from excavations in southern Mongolia in the early 20th century. The current re-installation, presented in well-curated categories, has been a direct product of the museum’s long-term and in-depth research into its extensive collection, but there are still many artefacts kept in the museum’s depository, awaiting further categorisation by scholars in HKU’s Art History department. A scholar currently working on the collection is Research Fellow Andrea Chen, who is studying the iconography and archeology of the Nestorian crosses for her dissertation. Chen is fascinated not only by the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the artefacts but also by their historical, religious and cultural significance.
According to Chen, the bronze crosses were notably difficult to cast, as moulds had to be made that could withstand hot liquid metal. Although the casting method is normally meant for repeated production, the bronze crosses in the collection are all unique and feature different designs. The reasons for the crosses’ fascinating, but highly impractical, formal variety continues to baffle Chen and other art historians, driving their enquiry into the precise functions and significance of the crosses’ stylistic distinctiveness.
As a form of Persian Christianity, Nestorianism spread to China along the Silk Road starting from around the 7th century and remained popular until the end of the Yuan dynasty. An early Chinese artefact called the Nestorian Stele, erected in 781, during the Tang dynasty, documents the early state of Christianity in China. However, the art historical and archeological significance of the Nestorian bronze crosses lies mainly in the fact that their forms and motifs showcase a confluence of diverse cultures in northern China, where Mongolian tribes thrived until the end of the Yuan dynasty.
By the time the crosses in UMAG’s collection were cast, Nestorianism in China had become an indigenised religion called ‘Jing Jiao’ throughout centuries, mixing Christian and Buddhist ideas and symbols and reflecting diverse cultural influences both from the local region as well as from the Silk Road and beyond. ‘Religious policy in China was quite tolerant up until the time of Wuzong of the Tang dynasty, when he persecuted foreign religions in favour of Buddhism,’ says Chen. ‘Before that, many different cultural and religious influences converged in northern China to produce mixed motifs like those seen on the artefacts.’
The bronze crosses – so called because of their overall cruciform shapes – measure between 3 cm and 8 cm in height and are symmetrical, featuring an outline in high relief and a loop on the back. Their flatness and loop suggest that they could have been pinned on the body as decorative ornaments or personal seals – the latter function further supported by the survival of red-coloured ink deposits in some of the designs, showing that the seals were used as chops to print unique designs on other surfaces, perhaps letters. Scholars also believe that the crosses could have been used as clan identification objects in Mongolian tribes, or symbols that differentiated between male and female clan members. Other theories suggest that the crosses could have been used superstitiously as magical chops to seal properties when owners were away.
The bronze crosses in the exhibition are grouped into four stylistic categories showcasing a variety of mixed Christian and Buddhist motifs. While all four categories share a common cruciform shape, the crosses are variously featured with straight ends, rounded ends, animal motifs as well as other geometric patterns. As differentiated from Latin crosses with longer vertical arms and shorter horizontal arms, most of the crosses in the collection are Maltese or Greek crosses, with four equally long arms extending from a centre square or circle. Some of the crosses are also examples of Syrian crosses, with the four arms connected by curved or straight bars.
The crosses displayed in different categories also show different motifs and geometric patterns. One highly recognisable recurring motif is the swastika, a Buddhist symbol since the 1st century, which is often represented in the centre, forming hybrid symbols with the straight or rounded parts of the cross shapes. This use of the swastika in combination with the Christian motif of the cross was specific to the Nestorians in China. In other examples, bands that formally represent radiating beams connect the four arms of the cross, seemingly referencing the literary meaning of Jing Jiao in Chinese as ‘luminous religion’. Floral patterns, popular as motifs in Persian culture, are found in other crosses, while Chinese seal-like forms, including the popular form of the Chinese character gong (Text Box: ), recur on other designs, further showing the mix of cultural symbols incorporated into the designs of the artefacts. The animal-shaped motifs on some of the crosses stand out even more distinctly than the recognisable geometric patterns. Most of these motifs recall the shapes of birds – some single ones, others with two heads or pairs of intertwined wings and bodies. These birds are either spreading their wings, reinforcing the strict symmetry of the cruciform shapes, or showing no wings or feathers, confined in the centre of the crosses. While it might be tempting for viewers to think of the birds as white doves, symbolising the Holy Spirit in Christianity, there is no evidence that this iconography existed in Eastern Christianity and Nestorianism in China. Rather, the single bird motif could have been meant as an eagle, a religious symbol for Mongolians who worshipped the sky. The two-headed birds could also have been Buddhist symbols of fire and light, while the double birds with turning heads conform to a popular motif in Persian art at that time.
All in all, UMAG’s collection of Yuan dynasty Nestorian bronze crosses shows a wide range of motifs and symbolism with both Christian and Buddhist religious influences. The hybrid forms that emerged from these mixed art historical references are specific to the Nestorians around Ordos in northern China, reflecting their influences from Chinese culture as well as from other Central Asian cultures brought by Silk Road travellers. With more archeological proof and findings from the current research, the exact uses of the crosses, the people who carried them as well as Chinese Nestorianism in general will be better understood. For now, the impressive re-installation of the crosses through a meticulous stylistic categorization is effective in allowing visitors to marvel at the productive confluence of cultures and religions in northern China more than seven centuries ago.
BY CHARLOTTE CHANG
University and Museum Art Gallery, University of Hong Kong, Pok Fu Lam Road, Hong Kong, www.hkumag.hku.hk