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Rubens and China: #historyisthebestmajor

Rubens and China:

Behind a non-descript door in the corner of gallery 690 in the Metropolitan Museum, a Peter Paul Rubens drawing waited for me …

As my former students know, I have long been interested in cross-cultural exchange.

In part this fascination was nurtured many years ago when I participated in the Australia-China Council’s inaugural scholarship in Beijing and Shanghai. In the semester I was in Shanghai I was the only foreigner in a Chinese classroom of around 40 students, and my classmates were as interested in learning from me, as I them.

Since then I have been fortunate to make this interest an area of academic study, considering issues of representation and identity, especially in different historical contexts.

While there is certainly much of note that can be learned about such subjects as trade, politics, geography and the sharing of knowledge in the early modern world, the material objects that convey/ed this cross-cultural exchange – such as books, maps, illustrations, clothing, funeral objects and the like – can also just simply be uplifting, fun and even dazzling.

These are among the many reasons that practitioners of the discipline consider that #historyisthebestmajor !

These life meanderings had eventually led me to a blank wooden door in the far corner of the Robert Wood Johnson, Jr Gallery, just a quick left up the main stairs from the Met’s grand entrance hall.

It is a door very easy to miss. I did not fail to do so.

Although I had traced my way back and forth a few times, being tempted by Johannes Wierix engraved prints, I knew I’d gone too far when I came across the

Johannes Wierix print

Benjamin Altman porcelains, and read of the Altman empire’s demise (lucky for the Met he had donated the porcelains well before the end…). Finally I was sent back to ‘Go’ and started again. Needless to say, by the time I reached the elusive door I was keen to see the print I had requested.

I had known that among the Met’s treasures – but not often on display - there was a small drawing from the early seventeenth century that was the product of decades of cross-cultural exchange, and I had requested to view it. It is called Portrait of Nicolas Trigault in Chinese Costume, and was created by Peter Paul Rubens in 1617, when Rubens and Trigault met in Antwerp in that year.

It is, ostensibly, a representation of the Belgian Jesuit missionary wearing a modified form of Chinese scholar clothing, who looks away from the viewer, perhaps to another person in the room, or perhaps even into the distance, thinking of his return journey to China still to come. Yet it is so much more than this, and especially if one knows how to look.

Ruben’s piece connected the imperial court of Beijing with the printing centre of Augsburg. It personified the six decades of conscientious toil of European - and Chinese - Jesuit missionaries that began in 1552 when Francis Xavier had died on a headland of Shangchuan Island looking out to the shores of mainland China, unable to reach his goal.

Map showing southern  China' coastline, including Shangchuan Island.

There are hints of the power of representation and patronage in Trigault’s visage and the sweep of his robes, and the hidden influence of both. There also seems to be a sense of weariness and ascetism at play here; Trigault does not look like a man well suited to perilous voyages and hard days in foreign climes. Ruben’s fine piece was at once not only the result of an arduous journey that began in the ports of east Asia but also represented a successful navigation of diplomatic intrigue in Rome.

Even today it continues to remind viewers of the fact that much of the learning that was communicated back and forth between Asia and Europe at that time, was only made possible by the people who actually carried such knowledge with them, both in their luggage and also in their heads!

We know from various records that Trigault had returned to Europe in 1614, because he had been sent by his superiors in China to be the procurator of the mission (he was appointed in 1612). This job was an important assignment, even if its list of responsibilities consisted of an overwhelming raft of tasks. Traditionally, the procurator was part diplomat and part businessman, responsible for putting a positive face on activities already undertaken in the mission and through this promotion among wealthy benefactors and patrons raise financial and spiritual support for future works. In Trigault’s case, Niccolo Longobardo (the superior of the Jesuit works in China who had been in China since 1597, and who would live there continuously until 1655!), assigned him seven distinct tasks.

According to a pioneering essay by historian Edmond Lamalle, Trigault was ordered to propagandize about the Jesuits’ efforts in China (and try to gain permission for Chinese language to be used in liturgy), seek money and income that could be used for the benefit of the mission, bring together books for a library in Beijing, gather precious gifts that could be used to good effect with the emperor and mandarins, recruit new missionaries and, finally, attempt to have a bishop named for China. These tasks reveal much about the more immediate needs of the young church in China, but also about the long-term plans of those working there.

Trigault was somehow to communicate all that had happened in the thirty-odd years since Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci first established a house in Zhaoqing, in the south of China, in 1583. He was aided in this important assignment, fortunately, by the fact that he was carrying an unpublished manuscript written by the great pioneer of the mission, Matteo Ricci.

Over the many months he anticipated travelling back to Rome, he hoped to edit this into a form that could be used to achieve many of the other roles as well. In telling of the early challenges and adventures, Trigault hoped to inspire other young missionaries to travel with him on his return journey to carry on the efforts begun by their Jesuit forebears; by promoting the great work that the China Jesuits and their Chinese companions were doing through-out the empire, it was hoped that rich Catholic patrons through-out Europe would loosen their purse strings and offer financial support that would aid their far off work into the future.

In the first task of the conversion of Ricci’s manuscript into an aedifying published work of propaganda (and yet one filled with observations about topics as diverse as the cultivation of tea and the use of gunpowder for festivities), Trigault was hugely successful. This is not to say that there were not major twists and turns along the way – not the least of which was the fact that Trigault was lucky even to survive his more than 18 month journey over sea and land, which of course would have had dire consequences for the manuscript – but for now that tale needs to wait for another time.

Enough to say that the work was published, the short title being De Christiana expeditione apvd Sinas svscepta ab Societate Jesv (or, Concerning the Christian expedition to China undertaken by the Society of Jesus) and was quickly translated and printed in multiple languages throughout Europe. The original work was published in 1615 in Augsburg by Christopher Mangium, and brought much fame to the Jesuits and their work in China. It also brought much fame to Trigault.

Thus, when he arrived in Antwerp in 1617 after the initial publication, seeking to fulfill other aspects of his role as procurator, such as recruiting young missionaries, building a treasure chest of gifts to take back with him and inspiring patrons to provide more support, our China missionary was a figure of note. His style of dress also attracted attention, deliberately so, and highlighted that here was a man set apart, one from another world.

In fact, Trigualt’s robe was an adaptation of Chinese scholar clothing, altered slightly in terms of the colours used, given that at that stage none of the China-based Jesuits had gained the court rank of later Jesuit astronomers like Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest, which entitled them to wear official insignia with assigned colours and stylistic flourishes.

Rubens note about the colours on the robe

Rubens was apprised of this, and made a note of such on the drawing’s upper right-hand corner, but it did not distract him from his job of depicting Trigault as accurately as he could. We know that Rubens was a well-known friend of the Jesuits, and an alumnus of their school in Antwerp as well as a member of one of the many prayer sodalities established by them, so there was presumably much that the two of them talked about as both sought to fulfill their respective tasks. The end result is a poignant and beautiful capturing of a man wearied by his labours and yet determined to continue to promote his cause, and a drawing that brought China to Europe, even as these Europeans themselves sought to take their own worldview across the seas.

Knowing this background as I did, it was a joyful privilege to gaze at this work at the Met (some four hundred years after its creation) and ponder the turns of history and the wonders that are revealed by its study.

I am lucky to be able to bring this knowledge to others, both through the work of Sino-Immersions and through various writings as well.

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