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Rarely seen work of Jesuit artists in China showcased

WASHINGTON (CNS): The Smithsonian art museums’ Empresses of China’s Forbidden City exhibit, on display from March 30 to June 23 at the Freer-Sackler galleries, in Washington DC, the United States, included the work of Brother Giuseppe Castiglione and Brother Ignatius Sichelbarth, 18th-century Jesuit missionaries, who offered their artistic services to the imperial court.
 
In the past, only royalty and high government officials saw their artwork.
 
“This assemblage of objects has never been seen before,” explained Jan Stuart, a historian and the gallery’s curator of Chinese art on June 22. 
 
The majority of the paintings and objects on display were previously only seen inside the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China.
 
The Washington exhibit focused on the lives of the powerful women who unofficially ruled or greatly influenced the emperors and showed a rare trove of objects that included wedding robes, wall-sized portraits of the women, jewellery and daily household items, such as plates with colours that only women in certain ranks could use.
 
“I could tell you the favourite cake recipe of an 18th-century emperor, but I can’t give you much detail about the daily life of the empresses,” said Stuart, who explained that art offers some of the few clues historians have about the lives of the empresses in an otherwise male-centred record of Chinese royal history. 
 
Jesuits like Brother Castiglione, who adopted the name Lang Shining (Peace of the World), were some of the few to document, in paintings, part of the life of the empresses and other women of the royal court. 
 
He was responsible for one of the most commanding portraits of the women in the exhibit, a wall-sized hanging silk screen of the saffron-robed Empress Xiaozhuang, painted around 1750, depicting her holding a strand of beads, almost like a rosary, referencing her great influence in spreading Buddhism as the prevalent religion of the court.
 
“She was greatly revered to have this size portrait,” Stuart said. “Look how large it is, look how loud it is. She’s sitting in a throne with dragons. ... You can see in this portrait, she had it all: strategy and a certain health and a religious dimension in her life, she had it all.”
 
Another of Brother Castiglione’s on display was a ceiling-to-floor screen portrait of Empress Xiaoyichun, consort of Emperor Qianlong with the future Emperor Jiaqing as a child, believed to have been painted in the 1760s. 
 
Chinese royalty sought out artists that would bring a different and worldly perspective to their lives, Stuart said, and Brother Castiglione’s paintings, while maintaining a Chinese style, brought something different to the interior of the palace.
 
Brother Castiglione also had a smaller, but equally notable oil on paper portrait of the Empress Xiaoxian, wife of Emperor Qianlong, in the exhibit. Painted around 1736, the portrait focuses solely on the face of the empress set in a charcoal-colored background.  
 
“He was a highly accomplished painter. He was both precise and realistic in his paintings. I would even say that he was one of the best-known missionary Jesuits in China after Matteo Ricci,” said Jesuit Father Paul Mariani, of the Department of History at Santa Clara University.
 
Brother Sichelbarth, a German-Bohemian, who used the name Ai Qimeng, also had prominent portraits in the exhibit: two large hanging scrolls of Empress Dowager Chongqing, painted in 1771, and one of Empress Xiaoxian, painted in 1777, possibly in collaboration with Wang Ruxue.
 
The portraits feature the elaborate and colourful robes of the empresses, many designed to accommodate their activities as expert equestrians, and Sichelbarth portrayed them in powerful poses, hinting at their unspoken power and influence behind the scenes during the last dynasty of China.
 
“We wanted to tell a story that had never been told before, a story that looked at the significance of empresses in shaping the history of the Qing court, a direct legacy of modern China,” said Stuart. “Despite the fact that history tends to be male-centric, women contributed in big ways.”

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