Unifying Spirit between East and West: Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), Jesuit painter in the Forbidden City.

By Matthew Ehret-Kump

“In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we should ensure that when it comes to different civilizations, exchange will replace estrangement, mutual learning will replace clashes, and coexistence will replace a sense of superiority. This will boost mutual understanding, mutual respect and mutual trust among different countries”

-Xi Jinping, Belt and Road Summit, 2017

Now that a new paradigm of trust, mutual respect and cooperation amongst the various cultures of the world has taken on a new empowering life led by Xi Jinping’s vision of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS+, thinking citizens must take the opportunity now to embody the best character of this new renaissance spirit. This means that instead of looking only at what separates the various cultures of the world as distinct from their neighbours, the time has come to commit ourselves to a true universal renaissance whereby each culture finds what is most beautiful, good and truthful in themselves and also in their neighbours. The best discoveries of each culture when cross pollinated in this way will create new and incredible wholes that will always be more than the sum of their parts, and contain greater degrees of potential for creative expression and understanding than each could sustain on their own.

A Renaissance Mind in the Forbidden City

Figure 1 Giuseppe Castiglione (aka: Lang Shi Ning), scientist and court painter to three emperors featured with scientific instruments introduced by the Jesuits into China

Although very little today remains of Castiglione’s original letters and writings, his genius can still be strikingly felt and studied. Born in Milan and having been trained in the renowned Botheghe Degli Stanpator art studio by master painters Carlo Cornara, and Andrea Pozzo, Castiglione found himself painting Jesuit churches in Italy [see Appendix] before heading off to China by the age of 19 to fulfill a request by Emperor Kangxi who had requested the services of Jesuit specialists in optical perspective, painting, mechanics, clock making, medicine, enameling and topographical projections.

Figure 2 Castiglione’s style of Xianfa provided a fusion of western and Asian techniques and aesthetics unparalleled to this day.

Upon arriving in China, Castiglione was immediately called into the royal court and asked to paint a bird for Emperor Kangxi who was so impressed with the young man’s work that he soon assigned him ten students. Sadly, none of Castiglione’s works from this period have survived (1715-1722).

Figure 3 Gathering of Auspicious Signs (1723) the earliest known work by Castiglione which masterfully blends chiaroscuro and renaissance realism with Chinese aesthetics

The earliest works preserved by Castiglione begin in the reign of Kangxi’s son Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735) and include the 1723 hanging scroll “Gathering of Auspicious Signs” [see figure 3] produced for the new emperor’s inauguration and his famous One Hundred Steeds (1728) [see detail in figure 4 and more in Appendix]. During Emperor Yongzheng’s reign, Castiglione worked intensively on flowers, birds, landscapes and other animals taking each subject to new poetic and technical heights along the way.

Figure 4 detail of One Hundred Steeds features a stunning example of Castiglione’s achievement of three dimensionality. The large (94cmx7.5 meters) silk scroll features three vanishing points to allow for the immersion of the viewer into the rhythm of each part of the painting which they could experience at once while still harmonizing with the whole.

Following in the footsteps of Leonardo Da Vinci, Castiglione is also credited for producing the first treatise on Perspective in China The Science of Vision (Shixue) in 1729 and designed many murals in the Forbidden City for Emperor Qianlong using the Trompe l’oeil effect (Quaduratura) which was popularized in European cathedrals and theatres [see figure 5]. Castiglione’s collaborator in the publication of Shixue was a brilliant Chinese mathematician, painter and government official named Nian Xiyao who wrote in the book’s preface:

“China has cultivated a great tradition of depicting nature in landscape paintings but neglected the accurate representation of projection and the measurement of buildings and implements. If one desires to depict these objects correctly, one must use the western technique.”

Figure 6 The Qianlong Emperor painted by Castiglione

His grandfather Kangxi was a scientist-poet-philosopher king of the highest order whom Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz described as a monarch ”who almost succeeds human heights of greatness, being a god- like mortal ruling by a nod of his head, who however is educated to virtue and wisdom, thereby earning the right to rule.”[3]

Figure 8 Kangxi Emperor- painter unknown

This divisive agenda steered by agents of Venice within Rome as well as Franciscan, Dominican and even several Jesuit missionaries in China beginning in 1640 and leading to the eventual expulsion of missionaries except for those in Beijing in 1724[6]. At this time the Christian faith was labelled an “elicit religion”, and remained so until the mid-19th century. This destructive policy known as the “Rites Controversy” was specifically designed to undermine the ecumenical policy of Ricci and destroy the potential fusion of Confucian and Christian renaissance forces which would have the power to usher in a new universal age of reason[7]. This potential was expressed by the scientist/statesman Gottfried Leibniz who wrote in his journal Novossima Sinica (News from China) in 1697:

“I consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation and refinement should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two extremes of our continent, in Europe and in China, which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite edge of the Earth. Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement, so that as the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out their arms to each other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of life. I do not think it an accident that the Russians, whose vast realm connects Europe with China and who hold sway over the deep barbarian lands of the North by the shore of the frozen ocean, should be led to the emulation of our ways through the strenuous efforts of their present ruler [Peter I].”[8]

The damage inflicted upon China by the Rites Controversy and the expulsion of missionaries from various leading scientific positions[9] caused irreparable harm to both east and west alike and resulted in the eventual undermining of both societies by the Venetian-centred financial oligarchy during the 19th century.

While Qianlong failed to properly defend the missionaries as his grandfather would have, he did go far to resist his more radical advisors who demanded that the Jesuits be fully banned, and that all Jesuits be expelled from the Imperial Board of Astronomy which they had led since the early days of the Qing Dynasty. Not only did the Emperor defend the Jesuits’ leadership in the Imperial Board of Astronomy, but also promoted Castiglione to 3rd civil official rank and Vice President of the Six Boards[10]. The Emperor also sponsored the fusion of western-eastern mixing of the visual arts and architecture in ways never before seen. The National Palace Museum of Taipei features the following description of Qianlong’s outlook on the arts:

“Qianlong, who perceived detailed, naturalistic painting as a means of propagating the magnificence of the Qing empire was a particularly strong proponent of this mixing of eastern and western artistic styles”

One of Castiglione’s close allies in Beijing was Ferdinand Augustin Hallerstein (1703-1774), who served as a leading diplomat between the east and west as well as the head of the Imperial Board of Astronomy from 1746-1774. Hallerstein’s letters provide insight into the tense atmosphere of the court and the Emperor’s resistance to the anti-Christian pressures being applied by his advisors. Early in the Emperor’s reign all efforts made by the missionaries to speak with the Emperor and plead for leniency had been blocked by the court eunuchs and mandarins. Hallerstein documented how a memorial letter of leniency had been presented by Castiglione to the Emperor in 1736 with the following account:

“The Emperor came as usual to sit by him and watch him paint. The Brother laid down his brush and, suddenly assuming a sad expression, fell to his knees and after uttering a few words Sacred Law drew from his breast our Memorial wrapped in yellow silk. The eunuchs of the presence trembled at this Brother’s sudacity, for he had concealed his purpose from them. However, the Emperor listened to him calmly and said to him in a kindly way: “I have not condemned your religion; I have simply forbidden the people of the Banners to embrace it”. At the same time he signed to the eunuchs to receive the Memorial and turning to Castiglione he added: “I shall read it, do not worry, and go on painting”[11]

It was in this same year that China’s first painting Academy was established which heavily promoted the Xianfa style and Castiglione was made “official court painter”.

Since Castiglione’s art is very much connected to the governance of China, it is important to briefly look at the political environment shaping his art from several angles.

After putting down Mongol uprisings in 1755-59, and extending the empire’s territories to include Tibet and Central Asia, the Qianlong Emperor did not enslave the Mongol Buddhist or Zunghar (central Asian) peoples but rather worked to build, beautify and protect their temples, mosques and other cultural treasures. In mastering their languages, and even adopting many of their customs as his own, the Emperor, who was fluent in 5 languages, described his approach to cultural diplomacy in the following terms:

“When the rota of Mongols, Muslims and Tibetans come every year to the capital for an audience I use their own languages and do not rely on an interpreter… to express the idea of conquering by kindness.”

In the various portraits which Castiglione was commissioned to paint of the Qianlong Emperor for display in the various regions of China, the Emperor consciously projected himself differently to each constituency. The National Palace Museum of Taipei described the strategy thus:

When Castiglione died on the 17th of July 1766 in Beijing, the Emperor personally wrote his obituary, erected a tomb stone and ensured that he was buried alongside the two greatest Jesuit missionaries who paved the way for a new paradigm of universal renaissance thinking, Matteo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell.

Since the destructive consequences of the Opium Wars, followed by the closing up of China under Mao Tse Tung, the school of Xianfa has fallen idle and largely forgotten. However, now that President Xi Jinping is leading a new era of ecumenicism and cultural exchange under the New Silk Road, the spirit of Castiglione and other great renaissance visionaries can finally be revived and taken to a new level.

Let us close with the wise words of Helga Zepp-Larouche who recently summarized this potential in the following way:

“The Confucian tradition is experiencing a great renaissance in China right now, led by President Xi Jinping, who has made it a point that Confucian teaching must be taught on all levels of society. We could turn back to the European high tradition at will. We could go back to Plato, the Classical Greeks, the Italian Renaissance, the German Classical period. And this is the European culture which is the New Paradigm of the New Silk Road, and if it is revived with a dialogue of culture with it, then at any time we can make it alive and with it a new Renaissance. If each nation and each culture makes alive again their highest cultural achievements, presenting to themselves and other nations their best aspect, it is certain a new renaissance will come—seizing upon the best from universal history, but beyond that, enthusiastically creating new corresponding concepts for mankind achieving maturity.”[13]

The 1754-59 battles to subdue the insurrection, and expand China`s territories was immortalized in a series of 17 elaborate copper prints which were designed by a team of missionaries led by Castiglione and produced in the finest engraving center of the world in Paris. King Louis XV directly ensured that his finest engravers led by Charles-Nicolas Cochin produced the works which were then sent back to China. The project took an incredible seven years to complete and the quality of the design and execution was recognized as some of the best in the world. Above are featured two of the 17 copperplate engravings are featured above with “The Lifting of the Siege of the Black River Camp” (left) and “Battle of Qos-Qulaq” (at right)

One Hundred Steeds Detail 1
One Hundred Steeds Detail 2
One Hundred Steeds Detail 3



Chrysanthemum Bird (detail)
Birds and Cherries
Figure 2 Paired Cranes in Shade

[2] Marco Musillo, Reconciling Two Careers: The Jesuit Memoir of Guiseppe Castiglione, 2008

[3] Leibniz recognized in the Emperor’s enlightened outlook towards governance and appreciation for renaissance culture, the potential to flank the system of “divide and conquer” wars, which had kept Europe fighting itself for hundreds of years.

[4] Under the condition that Confucian rites and traditions were also respected

[5] Michael Billington, “Matteo Ricci, The Grand Design and the Disaster of the Rites Controversy”, Fall 2001 Fidelio Magazine http://schillerinstitute.org/fid_97-01/013_ricci_rites.html

[6] Those who were already in Beijing were exempted from this expulsion, although their freedom to proselytize their Christian faith was revoked.

[7] Michael Billington, “Towards an Ecumenical Unity of East and West: The Renaissance of Confucian China and Christian Europe”, Fidelio Magazine, Summer 1993

[8] G.W. Leibniz, Preface to the Novissima Sinica (News from China), translated by Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemont, Jr., in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s “Writings on China”, Open Court, 1998, pp. 45–46. For the full story of Leibniz’s extraordinary design and efforts to unite Europe and China, see The Leibnizian Roots of Eurasian Integration by Jason Ross, Executive Intelligence Review, April 29, 2016

[9] Especially the government engineering bureaus which had driven many of the boldest internal improvements and technological progress which characterized the dramatic population growth experienced under the Qing Dynasty.

[10] This was the highest rank ever achieved by a Jesuit. See Friederike Biebl, The Magnificence of the Qing – European Art.

the Jesuit Mission in China

[11] Natasa Vampelj Suhadolnic, “Ferdinand Augustin Hallerstein on Giuseppe Castiglione’s Art”, 2015

[12] In an anonymous, unpublished biography of Castiglione written soon after his death, the anecdote of the Emperor’s admiration for the painter is described as well as Castiglione’s humility and disdain for honors: “Since he was a child, he was an admirer of Castiglione and developed a great love and filial affection for him. As soon as he became the Emperor, he could not stand the fact that the worthy old man did not have any honors, so he decreed that he would enter the Order of Mandarins. […] A lot of people started to congratulate him openly on what they thought was a settled fact, but the virtuous old man abhorred these kinds of honors, […]. So while asking God for what he had to do to avoid those honors […] he looked unusually sad so that his friends took it as a clear sign of his unwillingness to accept such a favor: a clear sign indeed also for the Emperor, who as he did not want to afflict the very person he wanted to gratify, recalled the decree, something which rarely happens. Castiglione’s humility had prevailed.” (Musillo, 2008, p. 54).

[13] Helga Zepp-Larouche, East and West: A Dialogue of Great Cultures, April 28, 2017, Executive Intelligence Review

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