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The Palace Museum and the Vatican Museums jointly present “Beauty Unites Us: Chinese Art from the Vatican Museums” in the galleries atop the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwu men) in the Forbidden City from May 28 – July 14, 2019.
In 1925, Pope Pius XI (1922–1939; Achille Ratti, 1857–1939) organized a major exhibition at the Vatican to showcase the beauty of cultures from across the globe, bringing together over 100,000 superb works of art, which aimed to demonstrate the Catholic Church’s high regard for the culture and artistry of the world. That historic exhibition laid a foundation for the Chinese collections of the Vatican Museums, which acquired a number of pieces collected by early Catholic missionaries and, eventually, a range of approximately 5,000 items representing the span of China’s dynastic history. As a historic program of international cooperation, the exhibition is the first time works from the Vatican’s Chinese collections have returned to China for public display. The curatorial team has selected seventy-eight works from the Vatican to be shown in three sections: Catholic Art, Buddhist Art, and Secular Art. The Palace Museum has also selected a variety of masterpieces—including two first-tier cultural relics—from its collections to be exhibited alongside the visiting works. The exhibits include gifts which bear witness to centuries of Sino-Vatican relations as well as exquisite artifacts which integrate Catholic themes and Chinese aesthetics. Throughout the history of Catholicism, missionaries from across the world have returned to the Vatican with works of art from other religious traditions, including many Buddhist artifacts from China. The Buddhist art from the Vatican Museums in this exhibition date to different periods and derive from different schools and regions, such as Buddhist statues of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). To further enrich gallery displays, the Palace Museum has also selected related Buddhist artifacts from its own collection. Over the centuries, Catholic art in China has undergone a continuous process of Sinicization. Catholic works embodying Chinese aesthetics are thus a highlight of this exhibition. Many of the pieces on view feature well-known religious stories of the Western world with figures portrayed in Eastern garments and settings. Traditional Chinese ceramics and enamels present stories from the Holy Bible, scenes with churches, and other Christian or Western influences. The oil paintings from the Vatican serve to vividly reflect the abundant exchange between China and the West. The exhibition also includes renowned works from the Palace Museum’s collections by the Chinese artist Wu Li (1632–1718) and Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766, Chinese name Lang Shining), the Jesuit missionary from Milan. Focusing on the sufferings of common people, Wu’s art reflects his Catholic faith while Castiglione’s paintings have a masterful combination of oriental and occidental techniques, which exerted tremendous influence on the art of the Qing court. Their works represent the unique charm of the Catholic art that developed in China.
As a cooperative effort between the Vatican Museums and the Palace Museum, this exhibition is a testament to the history of cultural interchange between the two states. The title “Beauty Unites Us” expresses the hope that visitors will appreciate the harmony between the two civilizations as seen in the array of art on view.
Adapted from the exhibition introduction and edited by Adam J. Ensign, Zhuang Ying, et al.