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