Christianity in Asia: Historical Perspective

Pietà (Mother of Sorrows), India, Kerala, 18th century, painted wood, Asian Civilisations Museum

Just as the historian Edward Gibbon could imagine a Europe shaped by Islam, Asia could also have developed very differently. Gibbon saw a battle in central France in 732 as being the factor that prevented Muslims from eventually taking over the continent instead of Christianity. This exhibition explores the fascinating topic of the beginnings of Christianity in Asia.

In Asia, there was no single event that dictated its spiritual future. Islam ended up dominating vast territories in West, Central, South and Southeast Asia; Christianity in Asia managed to pick up some small but useful crumbs instead. Enough to form the basis of a stunningly innovative and impressive exhibition in one of the world’s greatest free ports of secularism: Singapore.

The exhibition Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendour could have been retitled ‘Catholicism in Asia’ for all the impression that other Christian denominations made on this continent. The sort of Protestant missionaries who turned ‘Chariots of Fire’ into a tale of Christian values did not leave much of an artistic mark on Asia.

The Dutch Reformed Church was a fearsome body of iconoclasts whose aversion to figural imagery severely limited religious subject matter. Old Testament figures do turn up in Javanese works, but images of Christ or the Virgin Mary do not. The attitude is summed up in the introduction to a 1651 translation of the Bible into Malay, used by Dutch and British Protestant evangelisers for the purpose of converting ‘miserable infidels from their gross idolatory’. The Dutch Protestants of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) relented on rare occasions by showing a fondness for depicting Adam, whom it was thought had been created by God on that island.

The Christian Presence in Asia

The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) has deviated from its usual path to bring us the first substantial exploration of a faith that might be considered more alien than Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. In fact, the Christian presence in Asia is more ancient than might be expected. From the viewpoint of southern Indians, this can be traced back to the same Saint Thomas the Apostle whose doubting nature led him to probe Christ’s scarred body. Apart from some miraculous footprints, there is not much to support Thomas’ presence in India almost 2,000 years ago.

The curators are more concerned with the physical evidence of early Christianity than with the folklore, although there is still an enjoyable spread of that, too. In terms of chronology, it is impossible for researchers in pursuit of the Christian past to go back further than the time of Christ.

Their Islamic-art counterparts might take the liberty of using Abraham’s house (the Kaaba in Mecca), or the Queen of Sheba as early Muslims, but this option does not exist for those who see Christian heritage as starting with Christ rather than Judaism.

One of the Earliest Artefacts is a Stele from 781 showing Christianity in Asia

Among the earliest eligible artefacts at the ACM exploring Christianity in Asia is a stele that bears the date AD 781. Found in Xi’an, China, it records the arrival of Christianity in 635. It is just one of many extremely old survivors from China and Central Asia. It does not proclaim mass conversion in the way that entire tribes of Central Asia became Muslim as a consequence of a leader’s new-found religious zeal.

Most Christian conversions were on a small scale and were a matter of conscience rather than communal expedience. The tolerance shown by Jesuit missionaries, in particular, towards ancestral practices endeared them to hardened traditionalists such as the Chinese.

The Jesuits in Asia

The Jesuits were the most energetic missionaries in Asia, rather than being the first. From the 5th century onwards there had been Christians in Asia, not that they were known to their co-religionists in Europe. The first real discovery of each other happened during the age of exploration, when spices, not souls, motivated Western Europeans to explore the mythical lands that Marco Polo had passed through.

The famous Venetian had not only encountered Christian communities in the 13th century, but had also found the graves of the same Magi who provided an East-West link in Biblical times, and a touch of multiculturalism for modern Nativity plays.

Art scholarship goes well beyond the mythological to examine the physical heritage of the Christian presence in Asia. Once the Portuguese and Spanish had arrived, there can be no doubt that the production of Christian art expanded enormously. Was it made for a local audience or for export to the Catholic heartland of southern Europe?

Europe was certainly where much of it ended up. As with an earlier age, when Islamic textiles and metalwork found use in Italian and other churches as clerical vestments and hand-warmers, the craftsmanship of Asia was much in demand. Even more desirable were some of the materials that came from the East, including tortoise shell and ivory. Fine porcelain was another product that European potters were still incapable of mastering.

Admiration in Europe for Asian Devotional Items

There was considerable admiration in Europe for Asian devotional items. This was not a universal response; during the mid-16th century, the King of Portugal instructed his viceroy in India to stop ‘pagans’ making Christian imagery. Later in the 16th century, the King of Spain was the proud recipient of a Sri Lankan ivory crucifix.

There are many reports of items being sent to cathedrals as well as palaces in Europe. Stylistically these were often different from the templates that were brought to Asia by missionaries, not that this was generally commented on at the time. Sometimes the approach was more graphic than the European originals, as in the case of an ivory plaque from Sri Lanka that depicts the family tree of Jesse (ancestor of Jesus) springing from the progenitors loins in an uncompromising manner.

Usually it was the excellence of the craftsmanship that caused the greatest wonderment, rather than the extreme chubbiness of some of the infant Jesus ivories. Physical features that had much in common with Buddhist imagery were also common.

Ivory Carvers of Southern China

Innovation was a speciality among Asian makers of sacred images. These and all the other hybrid art that developed in Asia were often kept in their place of manufacture, or nearby. Borders were more fluid and craftsmen were frequently just as fluid. A lot of attention in the exhibition is given to the ivory carvers of southern China. These may or may not have been resident in China.

There seem to have been many in the Philippines, and their work may well have inspired the carvers of Europe rather than the other way around. Carvings with Chinese clouds and distinctive eyes ended up in large numbers in Spain and Mexico.

In 1590, the Archbishop of Manila could barely contain his excitement about the Chinese artists in his city: ‘… and the infant Jesus figures in ivory that I have seen, it seems to me that no one could make anything more perfect, as everyone who has seen them can attest. They are providing churches with images that they make, which are badly needed, and seeing their ability to replicate images from Spain, we would suggest that before long even those made in Flanders will not be required’.

In addition to the works that were exported, many were revered in their homeland. At times these had to be concealed. Persecution was common away from the centres created by the European powers, and the most violent tests of faith were in Japan.

The tolerance shown initially to Christians there led to many conversions and then later to many executions. Refinements to the already incomprehensible cruelty of crucifixion were developed to make this punishment as devastating as possible. Christians went into hiding for three hundred years, masking their religious icons as Buddhist or Shintoist items or concealing them behind the most sumptuous lacquerwork.

It is a credit to the exhibition curators of Christianity in Asia that they decided to reclassify a cross incorporating the Buddha that had previously been described as perhaps late 17th or 18th century. It is now attributed to the post Second World War period when interest grew in the Hidden Christians.

Christian Art Was Tolerated in Muslim Environments

Christian art was, surprisingly, sometimes more tolerated in Muslim environments. The Mughals had a particular affinity for Christian icons. Crucifixions were especially popular. These were painted by a variety of artists, sometimes Muslim, who seem to have enjoyed the subject matter more than the message. It might be that they were continuing with the traditional Islamic view that the Prophet Isa (Jesus) was not the person who ended up on the Cross, but rather the task was delegated to a substitute provided by God.

The Representation of the Virgin Mary in Iran

The other classic Catholic icon, the Virgin Mary, was hugely popular in Iran. Mary, or Mariam, is revered by Muslims as the mother of Jesus, not the mother of God. For Shi’a adherents, there is perhaps an additional appeal as the Imams of their faith derive much of their legitimacy from being the offspring of Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima.

The exhibition has a delightful painting by the 17th-century Iranian artist Muhammad Zaman, which copies a print by Melchior Kusel while adding a few inspired features such as the infant John the Baptist carrying a cross. The Iranian sheep is also more appealing than the original German version.

The Philippines and Goa Christian Communities

Only a few pockets of Asia became established Christian communities. The Philippines and Goa are the most prominent examples and many objects remain to show the history of  Christianity in Asia. The trophy that missionaries really sought was China. Various emperors encouraged Jesuit missionaries without ever engaging in the religion itself.

The artistic output featured more than just ivories. Porcelain items with Christian subjects were produced, including a Kangxi saucer that was glowingly reviewed by the Jesuit priest Father Francois d’Entrecolles in the early 18th century:  ‘They brought me from the remains of a large shop a small plate, which I esteem more than that which was made a thousand years ago. There is painted at the bottom a Crucifix placed between the Virgin Mary and St John, and it is said that they exported to Japan a great quantity of this sort …’.

As usual, it was a trade that ended with a declaration from the Chinese emperor banning Christian missions. Despite Jesuit efforts, Rome eventually decided that ancestor worship was not compatible with Catholic practice. Throughout most of Asia, Christianity did not fit with traditional values. It has tended to be an outsider religion, which gives no less vigour to the output of its sacred icons. Never again is so much of this heritage likely to be assembled in one place, and only until 11 September.


A catalogue accompanied the exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, 27 May to 11 Sept 2016, Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendour by Clement Onn, Lauren Arnold, and Pedro de Moura Carvalho