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Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America: 1542-1773. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 310 p. ISBN 0802046886. Reprinted in paperback, 2001. ISBN 0802085075. 

In Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America: 1542-1773, art historian Gauvin Alexander Bailey presents a panoramic view of the encounter of European visual culture with that of four distinct non-European and geographically separate societies: Japan, China, Moghul India, and Guaraní Paraguay. Bailey examines the encounter in regions that were beyond the control of European domination except for Paraguay which was in some proximity to European authority. The author explores how an order of the Roman Catholic Church without either the support or constraints of European power interacted with selected non-European civilizations. He is concerned with showing how the Jesuit Order, which was a creation of Counter-Reformation Rome, relied heavily on various aspects of High Renaissance and Baroque visual culture to spread the tenets of Christianity and proselytize in those far-flung regions. By visual culture, Bailey gives the reader to understand not only paintings, engravings, and sculpture, but also devotional books, illustrated lives of the saints, architectural treatises, banners, and maps. Printing, which had developed only in the late fifteenth century, was crucial to the missionary effort as it made possible the numerous printed books, treatises, and engravings that would serve as models for Jesuit art instruction.

Art on the Jesuit Missions is well written, informative, and ambitious. The book sheds light on numerous lesser-known artists and architects in the four missions. Such an artist was the sculptor known as the Trinidad Master, who was probably Guaraní (Paraguay) and who flourished around 1750. He managed to fuse static, frontal, and symmetrical elements that were characteristically Guaraní with a dynamic Italianate quality to create works of great beauty, as his Santiago Matamoros. Another important aspect of this work is that it makes one want to learn more about the Jesuit Order, to investigate the lives of some of the mission superiors, and to ponder the concept of cultural exchange. Bailey contends that the Jesuits pursued policies that other orders had implemented before – but the implication is that because of the Jesuits’ ambition, perseverance, and insistence on thorough and rigorous scholarship they were more successful. Although acknowledging some Jesuit failings and shortcomings, the tone of the book is, in general, very positive; the book is almost an apology for the Jesuits.
The premise of this book is that varying degrees of acculturation took place in the four geographic regions under consideration. Bailey maintains that while the Jesuits were not tolerant of indigenous cults (religions) they were, on the other hand, inquisitive and flexible to a degree concerning indigenous cultures. Jesuits emphasized the learning of indigenous languages in order the spread the word of God; and the earliest leader of the Jesuit mission in China, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), learned to speak Chinese, wore the clothing of a Confucian scholar, and learned the Confucian classics. However, as Bailey notes, “it is one of the ironies of the entire ‘Age of Exploration’ that the Europeans were quite zealous about exporting their own culture, but aside from an acquisitive interest in curious objects for their Wunderkammern, they learned virtually nothing from Asian or American art.”

On one level, this book is about the reception of European art by four non-Western societies and about the hybrid art fostered by this influence and the newly established art academies. In Japan, the Society of Jesus established an art academy with Jesuit teachers and indigenous pupils who created a variety of hybrid art, some of which was of very high quality and originality. Throughout the missions, Bailey identifies three possible types of transformations that occur in hybrid art: (1) juxtaposition, (2) convergence, and (3) syncretism. Juxtaposition involves no interaction, whereas convergence and syncretism may overlap and reflect different degrees of interaction. In Japan, China, Mughal India, and in Latin America, indigenous people were astonished by the realism and naturalism of European painting and sculpture. They remarked on the lifelike qualities of a Madonna and Child or an image of Christ. Undoubtedly such powerful images helped to move and convert some people. Nevertheless, many of the educated and elite in Asia considered the European realist and naturalist style clever but not serious, perhaps exotic, and a technical achievement at best, but not a style or manner to replace indigenous styles. With the exception of Paraguay that had no figural arts tradition prior to the advent of the Jesuits, traditional styles in Asia continued to exist alongside the art produced and circulated by the Jesuit missions.

While the Jesuits were present, many indigenous artists associated with the missions produced art that was strongly influenced by European art. In Japan for instance, between 1583 and 1614 the Jesuits had established a thriving seminary of painters under the leadership of Brother Giovanni Niccolò, a capable Neapolitan painter, engraver, and sculptor. Although the seminary frequently moved from place to place, it had by 1596 at least 93 students. The art students used oil paintings brought back from Europe by the ‘Embassy’ of 1590 and engravings largely from the Antwerp School as models for the numerous oil and watercolor paintings and sculptures produced by the academy. The academy furnished works of art for churches as well as for individuals in a country estimated to contain approximately 215,000 Japanese Christians. The Japanese academy also provided art for the early phase of the China mission as well.

The reception of the Jesuits and European art varied among the missions studied by Bailey. For instance, in Mughal India the Emperors Akbar (1556-1605) and Salim (1605-1627) welcomed the Jesuit missionaries at first for their representation of Western Christianity at interfaith debates. Although these two Muslim monarchs became knowledgeable about Christian iconography and had rooms in their palaces decorated with devotional scenes, neither they nor the upper classes were much given to conversion. They ruled over a substantial Hindu population and over smaller groups of Christians. Bailey views Akbar’s and Salim’s interest in and enthusiasm for Christian art as a reflection of their interest in using art in service of the monarchy. Jesus as Messiah was important to Mughal emperors who promoted themselves as Messiahs. Devotional images of Christ and Mary probably referred to the Emperor himself and to his genealogy through his female lineage.

Anthony Mullan
The Library of Congress


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