Den Fet-Ma (China)
Madonna and Child
c. 1870
Missionary-Ethnological Museum, Inv. AS 9174

General Description

This statue was given to Pope Paul VI in 1970, and was placed in his studio where it remained until his death. The artist’s name is Den Fet-Ma. He was Chinese and cast this life-sized bronze statue around 1870. It represents a young mother holding the naked baby tenderly against her body, possibly rocking it to sleep. The figure of the woman shows proud but natural bearing. Her posture and countenance radiate vitality and joy inspired by the gift of life she holds in her arms. Her regal appearance is enhanced by the form-fitting gown and the sophisticated hairstyle characteristic in some Asian countries of noble birth.

The Many Faces of Inculturation

Religious art was first introduced to China by Matteo Ricci di Macerata (1552-1610). Among the first images reaching China we have the famous image of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani, the Madonna of Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome), and missionary image par excellence used by Jesuit missionaries all over the world. This image, a copy of the Roman original, was copied by Chinese artists. In the process, a transformation took place introducing Chinese patterns for vestments and facial expressions (around 1600).

The Method of the Rosary (c. 1620) by Giovanni da Rocha was illustrated by Chinese artists using as model for the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary the illustrations printed in G. Nadal’s book of liturgical meditations (1595). A juxtaposition of the two renderings of the Annunciation – Western (Nadal, left) and Chinese (Rocha, right) – shows an evident progress of inculturation. The Annunciation is placed in a sumptuous setting incorporating nature but safeguarding the structure and meaning of the event. If we now turn our attention to contemporary art work from China, we notice that there exists a tendency to blend into one traditional and contemporary styles. He Qi, e.g., is mixing Chinese folk art and contemporary Western styles to portray the Annunciation scene. His intention is to overcome the limits of geography and culture. The result may be more Western than Chinese.

In the case of Den Fet-Ma’s sculpture, the outcome is different. The allusion to the Western sense of individuality and vitality is assimilated and translated into canons of Chinese artistic sensitivity.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog:  The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 122-123.

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