Jesus in China

Adam Minter is a writer based in Shanghai. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, ARTnews, the Rake and West.

The pews of Shanghai’s St. Ignatius Cathedral are empty except for two elderly women stooped over rosaries, bathed in morning sunlight turned blue by stained glass. Their prayers are strong and insistent, but as their words rise to the gothic arches framing this century-old church, they soften and disappear. Across the transept, Father Thomas Lucas, a Jesuit and University of San Francisco art professor, looks up with pinched impatience. He paces and stuffs his thick hands into the pockets of his black jeans. “What’s taking so long?”

Suddenly, high above the tile floor, a rendering of what one of the cathedral windows will soon look like edges into the clear glass panels of the window’s frame. Wo Ye, the Beijing-born artist working with Lucas to replace the stained glass that was smashed during the Cultural Revolution, rushes in with shuffling feet and a ho-ho-ho laugh. She flips open her cellphone and dials the laborers she has conned into climbing onto the steep roof to put the rendering in place. She directs them left, then right, until images of bamboo shoots sprout behind the glass. “What do you think?” Lucas asks Wo as they stand side by side, arms crossed.

Lucas is the latest California Jesuit to work in and around Shanghai’s great cathedral, completed in 1910 and ransacked in 1966. For almost 80 years, the Los Gatos-based California Jesuit mission has had strong ties to China, founding universities, sending teachers to seminaries and promoting a Chinese identity for Catholicism. Lucas’ mission--the design and installation of roughly 2,500 square feet of stained glass--is as important to his Jesuit superiors as it is to China’s Catholics as they emerge from decades of suppression and isolation.


Today, with 20% of the work complete, the windows in the first level of the 85-foot-high, 300-foot-long French gothic cathedral blaze with Chinese iconography, characters and designs. These windows are radical, and they have angered conservative Chinese priests who favor the Caucasian gospel characters depicted here when the church held its first Mass, long before communism arrived. Wo and Lucas, with the support of Shanghai’s bishop and leading foreign clerics, have so far persevered against the opposition. And Lucas says he understands why the Chinese Church conservatives are unnerved. “It is Chinese flesh on European bones,” he likes to say of the windows. “It is a dialogue between East and West.” Something that isn’t always accepted here.

On a narrow street a few miles north of St. Ignatius, the wooden doors of a small Romanesque church open to reveal a shrine to Mary. It sits on a tile floor that tilts toward another door leading to a rear courtyard and, around a corner, a fluorescent-lighted studio. Sister Han, one of three young nuns assigned to this, the only Chinese stained-glass workshop devoted to religious art, solders the grillwork surrounding a sinuous bamboo stalk while, at the other end of the room, Wo and Lucas hover over a glass-top table. Together they move around the glass puzzle.

Lucas had hoped the shoots in the windows along the upper register of the church would be gold, but Wo argued for a healthy green. “In China,” she explains, with a joking, authoritarian tone as she taps her left foot, “golden bamboo is dead bamboo.” Lucas smiles. “Church art,” he says, “sometimes requires compromise.”

Born in Placerville and raised in Sacramento, Lucas, 54, joined the Jesuits soon after graduating from Santa Clara University in 1975. While completing 15 years of extensive training and education in Santa Barbara, New York, Rome and Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, he honed his college hobby. With the order’s encouragement, Lucas earned a reputation as a significant liturgical artist. It is a rarefied field; he has perhaps two dozen peers in the United States. He restored the Rome apartments of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, as part of his dissertation project, and joined the University of San Francisco in 1995.

Lucas and Wo, 44, a traditional Chinese porcelain painter trained in liturgical art in Milan and at St. John’s University in Minnesota, share the task of replacing the St. Ignatius windows. She provides the designs while consulting with Lucas on how to make them technically feasible, Catholic and also Chinese. Though the details are still evolving, Lucas and Wo decided the overall scheme three years ago, and its major themes are divided among the three major structural levels of the cathedral, each of which is defined by a unique bank of windows. Now the nuns are assembling colorful abstractions of Chinese bamboo, meant to represent paradise, for the massive windows that will illuminate the highest level of the church.

The windows below will be filled with slightly darker glass depicting saints as well as historical figures important to both the Jesuits and the Chinese Church--St. Ignatius, for example, and Matteo Ricci, a revered Jesuit missionary from Italy--and will use painted stained glass in a manner that suggests traditional Chinese ink painting and washes, not the European figurative designs usually invoked by painted glass. “Nobody has ever done that before in China,” Lucas says.

At ground level, the cathedral is defined by 11 small chapels that surround the nave. Each chapel contains four three-panel, lance-shaped windows that depict the life of Christ in a distinctly Chinese way. Inspired by the Chinese folk art tradition of paper cutouts, the images include figures that, in both clothing and facial features, are neither Western nor Chinese. The paper-cut styling represents a fundamental departure: Elsewhere in the cathedral, and throughout China’s Catholic churches, liturgical art is clearly Western in style, and Jesus is a blond.

“We wanted Christ’s life to be in dialogue with aspects of Chinese culture,” Lucas says. And so the bottom panels are engraved with Chinese calligraphy, explaining the gospel scenes in the middle panels. The real action is in the upper panels and the quatrefoil windows that are set between them, where Chinese icons complement, and comment upon, the life of Christ.

A delicate blooming lotus, for example, supplants the lily that traditionally signifies Mary in the West, and a Chinese abacus accompanies a scene of Jesus and the money changers. An extraordinary curled phoenix, meanwhile, represents the resurrected Christ. These first windows, built over two years, cast shadows that grow lighter in color as they progress toward the altar, even on cloudy days.

By contemporary standards, Wo and Lucas are pursuing a radical program, but measured against Catholic history in China, their work picks up a conversation begun in 1582, when Ricci, the missionary, arrived in southern China. Instead of using coercive, Eurocentric methods to create converts, he undertook a careful, decades-long study of Chinese language and culture in the hope of convincing the highly educated members of the imperial court that his religion complemented Chinese culture and tradition, that Catholicism’s message truly was universal.

Ricci won few converts but earned the friendship of leading Chinese scholars, including a Shanghai aristocrat named Xu Guanxi. After Ricci’s death, Xu advanced Ricci’s idea of Chinese Catholicism by, among other actions, advocating the use of Chinese names for God and allowing Chinese ancestor veneration alongside Catholic rites. But then, in the early 1720s, Emperor Yongzheng banned Catholicism.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Jesuit missionaries began to return to Xu family land near Shanghai. Over the years, the area, known as Xujiahui (literally, “property of Xu family at the junction of two rivers”), developed into an enormous, mostly Jesuit, Catholic campus encompassing universities, high schools, convents, seminaries, churches and--beginning in 1905--a red brick cathedral called St. Ignatius.

“In my youth my cathedral was beautiful,” recalls Shanghai’s bishop, 90-year-old Aloysius Jin Luxian, whose fourth-story office overlooks the cathedral and a chaotic shopping district. “Filled with color.”

When Jin was young, China’s Catholic Church was very much a European Catholic Church in its religious--though not political--practices, and it remained so until the mid-'80s. The first Mandarin Chinese Mass wasn’t celebrated until 1989.

So nobody should have been surprised when, two years ago, just after the installation of the first nave chapel at St. Ignatius, one of the most senior of Shanghai’s priests wrote a multi-point attack decrying aspects of the new windows as pagan.

“The great irony and cosmic joke of this whole thing is being the running dog of Western imperialism, a Vatican-affiliated Jesuit,” Lucas says. “Telling the Chinese that they need to be more Chinese while the Chinese are saying no, no, we want to be more European.”

The rise of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 ultimately ended Catholic Xujiahui. In the anti-imperialist purge, foreign priests and nuns, including the Californians, were detained, occasionally beaten and eventually deported. Worse fates, including torture, imprisonment and death, awaited China’s native clergy and leaders. As a young priest, Bishop Jin was sent to prison for 27 years. Churches were closed, vandalized and turned into commercial enterprises. In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, St. Ignatius’ towers were toppled and its stained glass was shattered by Red Guards.

Then, in 1978, China took its first steps toward opening its economy to investment and market reform. St. Ignatius Cathedral, which had spent more than a decade as a state-owned grain warehouse, was returned to the Shanghai diocese. But China’s Catholic Church was in disarray, bitterly divided between those who agreed to worship in churches registered by the government-chartered Catholic Patriotic Assn. and those who went underground and flouted government jurisdiction.

In 1979, upon his release from prison, Jin chose the government-registered church, which the vast majority of Catholic leaders outside of China refused to recognize. Father Edward Malatesta, a Jesuit from Los Gatos, saw things differently when he took up the California Jesuit mission in the early 1980s. Like Jin, Malatesta firmly believed that the Catholic Church’s future in China hinged on working within the system. He took a stand with Rome.

“It was Malatesta who went to the Father General [of the Jesuits] and explained the real situation in China,” Jin says in his office. “He was the intermediary.”

In 1998, Malatesta introduced Father Thomas Lucas, then a young University of San Francisco faculty member, to Bishop Jin as the ideal artist to replace the windows of St. Ignatius. Two weeks later Malatesta was dead, and Lucas was uncertain how to proceed. He freely admits to being reluctant to do the project, because of both the technical difficulties and the political ramifications of working within a church hierarchy still widely viewed as a collaborator to a communist, atheistic government. But Shanghai was determined to have him, so Lucas made careful, diplomatic inquiries with the highest levels of the Jesuits.

“It was cleared through the main [Jesuit] office in Rome,” he recounts carefully. “And I was encouraged to go ahead with it.”

The Jesuit Father General is only one of many senior church leaders supporting Lucas and Wo. Additional support for the project--financial, spiritual and training--flows from major Catholic organizations, bishops and dioceses in the United States and Germany interested in fostering better relations among Beijing, the divided Chinese Church and the Holy See.

Early one weekday morning, Wo Ye watches a nun cut glass for a scale mock-up of the bamboo windows. “I think I am not happy,” she says to Lucas, who rolls his eyes and sighs at her. “No, I am not happy,” she concludes, seriously, before suppressing a wide-mouthed giggle with such force that her hand brushes the lightly hennaed, shoulder-length hair from her eyes.

Wo is the daughter of communist officials, and rebelled against her strict upbringing by choosing the life of an artist. Baptized in her mid-20s, she spent most of her 30s training in liturgical art before returning to China in 2001 and being assigned to collaborate with Lucas on the St. Ignatius project. She wears a shirt with “Rebellion” emblazoned in English.

Later, in the small private office above her studio, Wo glances out the window at the dorms inhabited by the nuns and sips instant coffee. “In China, art is about art,” she says, reflecting upon her education. “But in the West, art is about Church art.”

Lucas knocks on the door and they sit down to discuss the final details of the bamboo design. Wo is satisfied with it, but not with the glass available for the background, and so she and Lucas travel downtown to examine two three-story sculptural columns built of stained-glass fragments at the Shanghai Central Plaza mall. As weekday shoppers bustle past, occasionally casting curious glances, Wo points to her favorites. Lucas sighs and frowns. “What you want--that milky white glass there--is handmade, German and way too expensive,” he tells her with fatherly authority. “Like $150 a square meter too expensive.”

“Then I need to change the design,” she answers with stiff-backed defiance. “The background won’t work.”

“So change the design,” he says, throwing up his arms. “We’ve got nothing but time.”

Originally scheduled to last five years, the project is now in its third, with Lucas and Wo uncertain as to the end date. It is a touchy subject: Several elderly priests openly defy the 90-year-old bishop and would like to scuttle the Chinese windows in favor of “bearded ladies and blond Jesus,” as Lucas characterizes the preferred genre. Even with the unspoken time pressure, Wo and Lucas argue for another 30 minutes before he flags a taxi back to his hotel. Before he goes, though, he promises to check online that night for the glass.

For Lucas, as for Matteo Ricci, the battle for a distinctly Chinese expression of Catholicism is not merely an intellectual or artistic exercise. It is, in fact, a religious prerogative. While sitting in the pews of St. Ignatius, Lucas gazes at the windows and points out that beauty, the engagement of the senses, was never the intent of Jesuit art. “It was a secondary goal to moving hearts and instructing minds at the same time.”

In early spring, Lucas stands on a balcony at the University of San Francisco and takes in a view stretching from the Golden Gate to the downtown skyline. Though he’s in the midst of teaching duties at the university, he and Wo communicate regularly, exchanging ideas and images via e-mail and phone, endlessly refining concepts and designs.

“It’s much more complicated than working on your own,” he concedes. “But at the same time it’s a whole lot better than what I would’ve come up with [on my own] or what she would have come up with on her own.” Their arguments, he believes, belong in a complicated intercultural dialogue.

Despite the frustrations, the project has been an unambiguous success in Lucas’ mind, if only for the encounter on the morning Wo unpacked the first panel at St. Ignatius. Lucas recalls that a teenage boy who gives tours of the cathedral wandered over, saw the modified paper-cut design, smiled and exclaimed, “Cool--they’re Chinese style!”

The panel depicts the Annunciation in elegant, flowing lines, and Wo points it out as she gives a private tour of the St. Ignatius nave chapels during Lent. Then, on the way out of the church, she stops briefly in the entry vestibule to examine two golden windows engraved with greetings in several languages. Beside them, a large photo of Pope Benedict XVI greets visitors.

In September 2005, in an unexpected move, Pope Benedict personally invited Bishop Jin to attend a synod (a doctrinal meeting of church leaders) at the Vatican, and in March he informally, and somewhat cryptically, indicated that he was ready to visit China if the circumstances allowed. If and when a visit does occur, there is little question that Benedict would visit St. Ignatius, China’s largest Catholic church.

Outside, on the church steps, Wo looks up at the diocese’s office building next door and two fourth-floor stained-glass windows, designed by her, that interrupt a steady march of clear glass. Behind them, obscured by the color, is the bishop’s private chapel. “When I was studying in Milan they told us that we should go back and do church art as our own art,” she recalls. “I thought it was only talk, actually, but now I understand.” She throws her green canvas knapsack over a shoulder. “I think China needs this path.” With that, she strides off to the subway and her studio, where the sisters have been busy cutting glass since the morning.