Art, Culture //

Cross-cultural depictions of Christianity

Visual art is a powerful medium for the faithful to express their devotion. It offers an avenue for individual expression and connection to culture.

Art by Ava Broinowski.

“When the day of Pentecost was being celebrated, all of them were together in one place. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in foreign languages. When that sound came, a crowd quickly gathered, startled because each one heard the disciples speaking in his own language.” (Acts 2:1-6)

These words animate Christian evangelisation today, reminding believers every time religious rituals and worship take place across the globe. 

Today, Christianity increasingly finds itself fractured, with Western social liberals and conservatives wrangling over its future and message as it expands into the Global South. In light of this, communities are taking up the mantle to express Christianity in their own image, decolonising the classical ideals that dominate their faith. 

The Chinese Rites Controversy and the tyranny of colonialism 

The various European empires of the 19th Century were effectively animated by a common modus operandi of “Civilisation, Christianity and Commerce”, informed by Renaissance and Enlightenment ideals of rationality. 

One work, Michelangelo’s Pieta, lying in its imposing mirrored case inside St Peter’s Basilica, represents the Greco-Roman ideals that permeated Christian and European thinking at the time.

For Matteo Ricci, a 15th-century Italian Jesuit missionary noted for his missions to China, the historically evangelical Catholic religious order to which he belonged, the practices of Chinese folk religions were compatible with Catholicism, with some Jesuits arguing that the concept of Heaven in Confucian thinking and Daoism were analogous to Christian thinking.  

These ideals were rejected by 17th and 18th Century Catholicism during the Chinese Rites Controversy stemming from Ricci’s vision for a Catholic Christianity that appealed to non-Europeans. Then, China’s Emperor Kangxi (康熙帝) extended, as historian George Wei noted, welcoming arms to Jesuit missionaries who arrived in Beijing in the 1600s. 

“We decide therefore that all temples dedicated to the Lord of Heaven [the Christian God], in whatever place they may be found, ought to be preserved, and that it may be permitted to all who wish to worship this God to enter these temples, offer him incense, and perform the ceremonies practised according to ancient custom by the Christians. Therefore let no one henceforth offer them any opposition,” Kangxi’s 1692 decree reads. 

Despite the Emperor’s generosity, Ricci and the Jesuits’ efforts were sunk by internecine infighting between traditionalist elements, particularly the Dominicans, and reformist orders like the Jesuits, leading to Pope Clement XI issuing an edict forbidding Chinese rituals for all Catholics in China: 

“No Chinese Catholics are allowed to worship ancestors in their familial temples,” the Papal Bull of 1715 declared. 

“From now on such terms as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Shangdi’ should not be used: Deus should be addressed as the Lord of Heaven, Earth, and everything in the Universe.”

This controversy is one among many symptoms of a deeply colonial, imperial mindset that gripped Catholicism and other Christian denominations in their condescension for non-White ways of living and folk religions. 

However, Ricci’s vision was, in many ways, a prelude to the “world church” envisioned later on by the German Jesuit Karl Rahner in the 20th century, which opened the doors of the faith to a far greater population beyond Europe’s borders. 

Madonna and Child. Family heirloom courtesy of Emily Scarlis. 

Byzantine Iconography: unto the ages of ages (by Emily Scarlis)

Walk into any Greek or Eastern Orthodox church and you will likely be surrounded by vibrant images of Biblical figures and scenes against gold backgrounds. These images, commonly known as icons, play a central role in Orthodox worship and contain layers of symbolism and convention embedded with rich meaning.

As iconographer Lynette Hull explains, iconography is an “1800 year old art form” in which icons function as a “fusion of the material with the spiritual”, reflecting Christ’s nature as both man and God. This function is reflected in certain artistic conventions, such as the enlargement or reduction of certain facial features, the use of colour and perspective, and the absence of shadow. 

These rich Byzantine artistic traditions continue to be practised to this day, and icons retain their significance in Orthodox churches and services. It’s common to see an icon hanging on the wall in a Greek-Australian household, and pocket-sized icons of a child’s patron saint are a common party favour at Greek Orthodox baptisms. 

When my yiayia (grandmother), Phyllis Anastasiadis, left her home on the island of Samos to come to Australia in the early 60s, she wasn’t able to bring any icons on the journey. Upon returning home for a visit, she found that her siblings had claimed them all. 

Nevertheless, she has amassed a sizable collection, many of which are displayed on an ensconced shelf in her kitchen. As I asked about her favourites, she told me stories of saints and miracles, of her travels around Greece, and of panigiri (village festival) on Samos where the whole island would travel to the church in the village of Pythagoreio to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. Interestingly, this was the day I was named after. 

At the centre of the display is an icon that has always stuck out to me. It’s a little different to most icons – landscape, rather than portrait, without the typical gold background. It depicts the Virgin Mary (known as Panagia in the Eastern Church) standing serenely in front of an outline of the Australian continent, arms open as if imparting a blessing. I learned from yiayia that it was painted by her brother Stylianos, an amateur artist during his retirement, who has since passed away. While I only met Stylianios once when I was very young, and can barely remember him now, I know that the next time I visit yiayia’s and see that icon – with its unapologetically Greek style and Australian subject – I’ll be reminded of him. I wonder about the experiences that that generation of Greek-Australians had in bridging two cultures at a time when they were less welcome than they are now. 

On my own living room wall hangs a more typical icon depicting the Virgin and Child, flanked by angels and miniatures of various saints made of silver with gold plating and coloured beads. My mother has two icons like this, gifts from my grandparents when she moved out to start her own household, specific designs that yiayia sent my pappou (grandfather) to find in Athens when he was unable to locate any in his hometown of Ioannina. 

When I asked yiayia if her icons reminded her of home, she said: “yes, of course”. 

Christmas in Vietnam. Source: Mark Ratcliff, Saigoneer.

Vietnam’s Catholic communities taking ownership of the image of Christ (by Khanh Tran) 

In Catholic communities in Vietnam, expressions of Rahner’s “world church” are found in almost every corner. Existing alongside colonial edifices like Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral lies a uniquely Confucian and Vietnamese expression of Christianity. 

Christmas in Saigon’s District 8, though an eyesore to those who yearn for a return to conservative traditions such as Latin masses, is a glamorous affair in 21st-century Vietnam. Rows and rows of houses attempt to outcompete one another by using every colour imaginable, skirting the line between kitsch and extravagant. 

Every winter, Catholic communities in the district construct elaborate Nativity scenes in every configuration possible: think bright yellow neon lights adorning an ao dai-clad Virgin Mary and St Joseph donning garments reminiscent of a typical Mekong Delta farmer, befitting Joseph’s background as a carpenter. 

In other words, Christianity, and indeed Christ himself, is portrayed not in Michelangelo’s mould, but as an imposing figure incomprehensible to the masses behind the rood screen. This image is truer to the spirit of the worshipping community.     

This strong sense of community in the Vietnamese Catholic tradition is also expressed in its pilgrimages. For some, they may be an unnecessary superstition. But for others, these journeys are a part and parcel activity for bonding over faith and engaging in deep discernment among fellow believers. 

In Our Lady of La Vang, a Catholic parish church in central Vietnam, an austere statue of the Virgin Mary donning a white, flowing ao dai and a traditional scarlet Vietnamese turban stands next to the ruins of the namesake parish church, destroyed by the American War nearly 50 years ago. 

These sculptures, while not receiving the same artistic recognition that Pieta does, embody the hyperlocal history of the community who trade, farm, and thrive under the auspice of the Virgin Mary. In La Vang’s case, this has occurred for over two centuries. 

I recall my mum’s words as we headed down towards the Church and La Vang’s Marian shrine nearby, as hundreds of pilgrims congregated for the Friday Mass. The Church itself is built with Sino-Vietnamese architecture rather than emulating European Gothicism. One might mistake it for a Confucian temple were it not for the cross perching above.

Người ta gọi chuyến đi này là tịnh tâm, khi các Ki-Tô hữu đi viếng thăm đúc mẹ để cầu ân và mong Mẹ ban phước lành cho,“ 

“They call this journey a ‘retreat’, when believers of Christ visit Mother Mary to thank God and ask for blessings,” my mother said. 

Regardless of their artistic merits, these sculptures provide a deep, palpable sense of the community belonging, happy-go-lucky mindset, culture, and faith that characterise modern Vietnam. 

Their bright colours are a world away from the serious, mournful Christianity depicted by adherents to a conservative version of the religion. In December 2021, Pope Francis came under fierce criticism from traditionalist conservatives for placing increased restrictions on the use of Latin masses in his Traditionis Custodes decree. Yet, without the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), the colonial Catholicism of the old days may have endured, when the liturgy was largely confined to Latin, and the priesthood turned his back towards those he preached to. 

This development is, in many ways, not merely a result of Vatican II, but a corollary of the fall of European colonies during the 1960s. It mirrors what Rahner’s “world church” rather than one ossified in the Eurocentric, classical mould of Europe and North America. 

It also represents a post-Vatican II landscape of Christianity where lay people increasingly take the reins, not just ecclesiastics. Without these changes, the exuberant colours and non-classical celebration of the Christian faith that these communities endorse would be impossible. 

Taking a leaf from Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium where he offers advice for the Catholic Church on evangelisation in the modern world: 

“An evangelising community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distance, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others,” he implores. 
And it is this message that is imbued in the Confucian rituals, acid-bright colours, and ao dai that adorns Christian practices in Vietnam today, with Vietnam’s Catholic communities taking ownership of and transforming the image of Christ to reflect our community.