S alesman Willie Loman meets missionary Matteo Ricci, SJ. Breezed through security with no problem, despite having about 35 pieces of very expensive German stained glass in my carry-ons. A small miracle, but significant. Checked two huge suitcases full of tools and long johns.
Shanghai will be chaos, without a doubt, as we start work on the windows of the Cathedral of St. Ignatius, a 95-year-old church in Shanghai’s Xujiahui district. The cast of characters: Shanghai’s bishop Aloysius Jin, SJ, 88, who, after his release from 26 years in prison, was the rector of the seminary (where he supervised the translation of Vatican II and the liturgy into Chinese). Beijing-born Teresa Wo Ye, the principal artist and project coordinator (Bp. Jin sent her to study church art and design in Italy and the United States before entrusting the cathedral project to her in 2002). Three Chinese nuns, Sisters Wu, Li, and Han, who will fabricate the panels.
The challenge is how to transform a red brick French gothic church dating from 1910 into a modern cathedral for Shanghai’s small (150,000) but dynamic Catholic population. Over the past two years we have hammered out a conceptual model for the almost 2,500 square feet of stained glass. It incorporates Chinese motifs, styles, and symbols and traditional Chinese iconography with the Christian narrative. We are planning a hybrid, combining traditional Western stained-glass techniques and Chinese folkloric elements.
Sitting in the eye of the hurricane, literally and figuratively. The San Francisco airport is awash with the first big winter storm, which promises to get more intense. Not a bad meta-phor for the past several weeks and those to come. These few days between Christmas and departure have been a small breather between the end of the semester at the University of San Francisco and the Shanghai expedition, the first full flavor of sabbatical. As I finish my Bloody Mary, they call the flight.
Settled in quite easily. Friends found me a very comfortable and inexpensive apartment for my seven-week stay. Found the local markets and a bakery, so I’m able to eat in for breakfast and supper most days. I take a $2 taxi ride to the studio, about ten minutes across town in good traffic. A wintry but well-used park is a fifteen-minute walk away.
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The studio is in the basement of an old church in a low-rise, low-income neighborhood grudgingly giving way to immense apartment towers. Wo Ye’s done a great job getting it fitted out, and it’s very efficient. She’s found good Chinese art glass and lead. All we need to import is some handmade, plated German glass for etching.
We cut out the first two lancet windows with three panels each this week and have started sandblast-etching the panels. Wo Ye and I argue about design and color and balance. Another woman, Wo Ye’s artist friend Ma Li, contributes design details as well. I taught them a three-day crash course in glass techniques at the University of San Francisco in summer 1999, and now we’re doing a cathedral in Shanghai. The nuns are new to their craft but have taken to it with good cheer and great precision.
In the first group of windows on the nave level, closest to the viewer, we are illustrating the New Testament in 44 panels, much as the medieval European cathedrals did. But we are using traditional and contemporary Chinese motifs, and background designs based on traditional wooden window grilles used in Chinese houses, temples, and pavilions.
Next week we’ll take panels to the cathedral to do a check for color density, fit, and feel, then we’ll start cooking on the rest of the pieces for the first of the cathedral’s eleven chapels. Each chapel in this first phase has four lancets with three pieces each, about five feet high; two rosettes about two feet in diameter; and four little corner pieces. Wo Ye and her crew will be at it for a good long time. I expect I’ll be making a lot more trips as well. The project will take four to five years, if all goes well.
Learning a lot about patience: it’s slow teaching through translators, and negotiating entirely different ways of getting things done is frustrating, even befuddling. Trying to set aside my notions of efficiency somewhat and to jump into the millennial flow of China is a distinct challenge. It’s not too different from Italy, actually, except for the food, and the noise and spitting levels, both of which are extraordinarily high.
Yesterday was one of the great days of my life. We installed the first of 56 stained-glass panels in this Shanghai cathedral. The installation marked the end of the first chapter of a work that began six years and three weeks ago, when Fr. Ed Malatesta, SJ, introduced me to Bp. Jin. Jin told me that his fondest dream was the restoration of his cathedral, and, most of all, stained-glass windows. I nodded politely. He was 82 then, and old men like to dream.
When Malatesta, a scholar and Sinologist who founded the Ricci Institute at the University of San Francisco, died unexpectedly two weeks later, I imagined that his passing was the end of the project. Little did I imagine that Jin’s powers of dreaming, honed by ten thousand days and nights in prison, were so unremitting. He stayed after me. Old Jesuit bishop is now 88, and the first windows went into his cathedral yesterday.
When I returned to Shanghai at Jin’s invitation to consult with him in January 2002, I was skeptical on several accounts but hopeful on one. Skeptical on the practical side because of the difficulty of obtaining materials and setting up a studio, my limited availability, and even more so because, as I told the bishop at that time, I had no desire to help turn the gothic building into a museum that would replicate its appearance in pre-Revolutionary China. Hopeful because Teresa Wo Ye, the artist in whom he placed so much trust, is an immensely talented and energetic woman.
Images are powerful; political and religious propagandists know that even mediocre ones can hold tremendous power over people’s hearts and minds. The situation here is politically, symbolically, and iconographically complex, to say the least. The Church has suffered gravely in the last 60 years; deep divisions remain.
As for Sino-Vatican politics, I leave it to Protonotaries Apostolic and Grand Viziers of whatever court sits at Peking at any given time. The Church in the West and China in the East are the world’s most ancient and enduring institutions, so it’s no surprise to me that old games of great importance continue to be played by crafty and subtle players on several sides. The Church has wrestled with two dynasties—three if you count the present one established by Emperor Mao—as well as various expulsions, revolutions, and persecutions. What I see is that, in spite of all the signs of contradiction, the poor continue to have the good news preached to them. That’s good enough for me.
The visual and, to a large extent, ritual vocabulary that Chinese Catholics held onto, often at great peril, is not Chinese but largely reflects French piety of the early twentieth century: blond madonnas and soft, even feminine images of Christ. Though they are images of another time, another place, they are the only images the Church in China had at its disposal, all they had to hold on to. They no longer speak to most Catholics in the West, and it’s hard to imagine how they can hold the youth of today’s China, a totally secularized, post-industrial world.
That’s what I told the bishop bluntly. If he wanted to recreate the St. Ignatius Church of his boyhood, where he had worshipped as a high school student and later as a Jesuit seminarian, I could find studios to work with him that would restore the cathedral to its pre-Revolutionary appearance.
On the other hand, we had before us an immense, rich opportunity: turn St. Ignatius into the first twenty-first century Chinese cathedral, putting Chinese flesh on the building’s beautiful French gothic bones.
Jin paused for a moment and then said, “I’m an old man, I know nothing about art. I like the old images, but I trust what you are telling me. Work with Wo Ye, and we will do the cathedral and then other churches.”
That led to more trips and then to the realization during these weeks of the first 56 panels.
Yesterday, as we were laying out the panels on the cathedral’s pews, parish teenagers who work as tour guides on weekends came over to see what we were doing. One of the youths looked down at the windows and beamed a thousand-watt smile. “They’re Chinese style! Cool!” He got it. Right away, the kid got it.
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Wo Ye’s contemporary drawings for the etched gospel narrative panels that echo Chinese paper-cutting folk art, the use of traditional Chinese emblems to illustrate gospel scenes, the calligraphy for the explanatory tags, the background tracery based on traditional Chinese window grilles, the bright colors—all spoke to him and his friends. All afternoon, as the carpenter and glazier worked with us, the teen brought groups to the chapel and proudly explained to them the new Chinese windows in his cathedral.
Information about the Catholic Church in China is available at the U.S. Catholic China Bureau web site (www.usccb.net) where links lead to articles such as “Understanding the Roman Catholic Church in China” by Jean Paul Wiest), The Holy Spirit Study Centre (www.hsstudyc.org.hk), the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation (www.Kuleuven.ac.be/verbeist), and the University of San Francisco’s Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History (www.usfca.edu/ricci). Company magazine’s web site contains much about Jesuit involvement with China, including stories about a Jesuit graveyard in China, missionaries Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci, and more. At www.companymagazine.org type “China” in the search engine.
Leaving tomorrow for San Francisco. Two days ago, surrounded by sisters, laypeople, and several clergy, Bp. Jin solemnly blessed the new windows with prayers, incense, and water. I felt the shades of the Parisian Jesuits who had built St. Ignatius very much present as we celebrated the artistic rebirth of their church with ancient signs that would have been familiar to them. But the future was there too, in bold colors—bolder than any Western liturgical palate would have admitted.
Shopping for souvenirs. Found a book of old Shanghai photos at a museum shop. It shows the cathedral under construction and contains pages of photos of one of the Jesuits’ proudest Shanghai works: the T’ou-se-we, a trade school for orphan boys who were taught to set type, paint like Murillo, and make neogothic stained glass like Viollet le Duc. All that’s gone, of course.
Still, in a chilly studio in the basement of a church on Datian Lu in Shanghai, three nuns and a laywoman are continuing the work, creating, panel by painstaking panel, a modern cathedral for a cultural crossroads. Fifty-six panels up, 865 to go.
Just returned to San Francisco from an intense eight-day trip to Shanghai, where we opened a lovely show on the project at the Westin Hotel. Six full windows, assorted small panels, all done in the past few months, hang in a bright gallery space thanks to a generous invitation from the management. Forty-five international journalists attended a press event; interest was very strong. The crowd at the opening reception was grandly cosmopolitan: a combination of Church people, art and embassy folk, and a younger international crowd from the hotel grazing at the hors d’oeuvres table and caging free wine. Somehow, it still worked, and the new glass looked superb.
Forward progress to be sure, despite inevitable complications. We installed windows in the second chapel of the cathedral in June 2004. Late last spring Bp. Jin suffered a serious heart attack but was well enough to attend the exhibit opening in October. The crew just got another member, Sr. Meng, and another bay of space in the church basement studio. Work on the first phase of windows is nearing completion. A major installation in nine chapels is scheduled for January 2005.
What amazes, intrigues, and sometimes rankles is how much the Church is the same everywhere. Last summer, objections from a small number of vocal Shanghai Church folk caused us to rethink a few details. Use of some emblematic elements like the Chinese dragon is neuralgic for them: it suggests the dragon of the Apocalypse, so, after a lot of discussion, the dragon is out. Like every Church project anywhere, compromises need to be made. Even more so here, when we attempt to transform iconographies, meld cultures, and wed complicated ideas. Nobody ever said inculturation was an easy road.
On the drawing board, 22 patriarchs, prophets, and saints of the Old and New Testaments, painted in Chinese style, for the middle-level windows, and a new Mary chapel with blue and white Ming flowers for the apse. Slowly but steadily, the color of the light changes at Xujiahui.