An Interdisciplinary Perspective to a Historical Issue: A Jesuit Madonna Case in the Seventeenth Century


Chen Hui-hung, National Taiwan University

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Abstract: Historical issues regarding cultural encounters can require explorations of complex relationships between the past and present, the Self and the Other, and various intercultural concepts. These relevant questions not only shape the most prominent characteristics of the discipline of history in the humanities, but also entail other disciplinary methods, such as those of anthropology, sociology, and cultural and religious studies. The study of the multicultural features of Christianity in China provides an insight into an early Chinese understanding of the West, which later served as a foundation for China’s modernization. The image and cult of the Virgin Mary—much more popular, and yet also controversial in the early years of the Jesuit China missions—demonstrates well that an image was seen as an object, by means of its distinctive material elements, mostly by its viewers or respondents. This can be revealed and narrated in terms of a material dimension, in which an unintended invention could have resulted when the viewer or recipient, rather than the author or person who had had its authority, was the dominant agent. In this process—from the perception of a foreign object to the forming of a new idea—the image as object could have played the role of “first” agent, then the viewer as the “second” agent. Due to this paramount nature of objecthood, I will demonstrate how a displacement or diversion of the original sacredness of the image could have occurred, and that a new iconography more favourable to the viewer, or the second agent, could only have taken root in a non-Christian land, where the Madonna image and cult would have played a completely different role in its religious efficacy.

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