Mercy-Bridge Between Religions

Anonymous (China, Ming Dynasty)
Madonna and Child
Missionary-Ethnological Museum, Inv. AS 10059

General Description

Most likely by a Chinese artist, this work bears the inscription Da Ming Nian Zhi, meaning, executed at the time of the great Ming” (1368-1644) which would theoretically allow for a datation anywhere between 1549 (Francis Xavier attempts to enter China) and 1644. More realistically, the date of origin should be fixed at a time between 1600 and 1620. This piece is unique not only because of its physical appearance, but also for its theological message of inculturation. It is carved from an elephant tusk, and features in limited space Mother and Child, her scepter, two angels, and a dragon, not to mention the many decorative accessories. As an example of the latter, see the lotus flowers adorning Mary’s dress, symbolizing longevity and purity. The delicate chromaticism and finely carved features, as well as the harmonious integration of the sculptural form with the physical reality of the tusk, are indicative of high quality art and exquisite craftsmanship. The sculpture was a gift to Pope Paul VI, and until 1973 embellished the Pontifical Antechamber.

The Mother of Mercy

To enter into fruitful religious dialogue with Buddhism, experts in Asian theology advise to highlight mercy and passion. These two themes are representative of Buddhist doctrine. Avalokitesvara, or Buddha, has suffered ascetically in order to free people from the pains of earthly existence. This sculpture goes one step further. It blends into one Mary, mother of Mercy and Guanyn or Gwan- Um. In China and Korea, Avalokitesvara was represented in feminine form, and is venerated as a gentle and compassionate “Madonna” called Guanyn (China) and Gwan-Um (Korea). She is described as a model of mercy and may be compared to Mary, Mother of Mercy. Like Mary, she dedicates her personal mission to mercy, as mother of everyone. Sculpting his Madonna and Child, the artist was inspired by Guanyn. She is frequently depicted with a child in her arms, riding a dragon. Placed in front of waterfalls or on rocks, she leads stranded sailors to safety. The artist added two little angels to give the sculpture a more pronounced Christian character.

There are, of course, differences between Guanyn and Mary. Guanyn is not a historical person. Legend describes her as a princess, Miao Shan. As idealized woman, she personifies the Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism, but she is not a goddess, just as Mary should not be mistaken with a feminine face of God. Guanyn is the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara among many other boddhisattvas. Her mission is mercy and she leads to Nirvana. Mary’s mercy leads to the Cross, the source and reason of God’s mercy.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 120-121.

View more information on The Mary Page: www.udayton.edu/mary/resources/asian/asianreligions.htm

Return to Vatican Gallery


This page, maintained by The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, Dayton, Ohio 45469-1390, and created by Kris Sommers , was last modified Wednesday, 06/08/2011 14:48:49 EDT by Ajay Kumar . Please send any comments to jroten1@udayton.edu.

URL for this page is http://campus.udayton.edu