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Museum Monday: How did images of the Virgin Mary influence a Chinese Buddhist archetype?

September 30, 2016
By Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith'13 is an alumna and a recent graduate of the Art History M.A. program at the University of Oregon. Rachel is back on campus serving as the Collections Manager and Exhibitions Coordinator at the Wright Museum of Art, where she was a Museum Studies student. Her contribution to this week's Museum Monday is based on her thesis research on Japanese Christian and Buddhist art. 

Museum Monday: How did images of the Virgin Mary influence a Chinese Buddhist archetype? Museum Monday: How did images of the Virgin Mary influence a Chinese Buddhist archetype?

Two statues of the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara (known as Guanyin in Chinese), holding an infant on her lap in the style of the Christian Madonna and Child archetype, are in the collections of the Wright Museum of Art. In China, this type of statue is known as "Child-Granting Guanyin." By studying these figurines, we open a window into the cultural and religious exchange, colonialism, mass production of goods, and international trade that characterized the relationships between Europe and Eastern Asia in the early-modern period.

Images of the Madonna and Child first came to China through the Silk Road and the multicultural Christian communities established by Nestorian missionaries in the 1200s and 1300s. Two tombstones dating to 1342 and 1344 are decorated with the earliest-known Chinese images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, which show elements of Latin, Chinese, Syro-Turkic, and Tibetan stylistic influences.

However, it was not until the arrival of Franciscan missionaries that images of the Virgin Mary reached a wider audience. The popularity of the Virgin Mary influenced the stylistic development of Songzi Guanyin, combining elements of Buddhist and Christian iconography. Songzi Guanyin's white robes originate from Buddhist representations of the "White-Robbed Guanyin" manifestation of the bodhisattva while the infant on her lap derives from Christian images of the Madonna and Child. The reasons why the specific bodhisattva was chosen to be represented in a Marian style remain unclear, but some scholars point towards the compassionate, intercessory nature of both figures. In port cities along the eastern coast of China, Buddhist sculptors and printers produced images of the Madonna for export to European Christians and those of Songzi Guanyin to Christians and Buddhists in China, Japan, and the Philippines.

Iconographically, the two statues of Songzi Guanyin in the Wright collections are not so different from the typical image of the deity. Both have more Sinified than European facial features, hold infants on their laps, and wear the hooded robe of the White-Robbed Guanyin.

However, the appearance and styles of the wooden and porcelain statues suggest their creation for different audiences. Sculptors produced the wooden Songzi Guanyin in the late Ming dynasty (late 16-early 17th centuries), when trade with growing Christian communities in China and Southeast Asia boomed. Its clinging robes, which almost look as if the sculptor drew them on the statue, and the use of wood hint at a more domestic audience.

In contrast, the porcelain Songzi Guanyin (1940s-1950s) wears a multicolored and meticulously-patterned robe. Like other porcelains from Guangdong Province, a longtime epicenter of international trade, the use of bright colors indicate its production for a European market.