How European Enlightenment thought reached China via Macau and its Baroque St Joseph’s Seminary – a new history 

Historian Cesar Guillen-Nunez’s book on St Joseph’s Church and Seminary in Macau explores 17th- and 18th-century Western influences on Chinese art and will appeal to anyone interested in art history and bilateral cultural exchange

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 February, 2018, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 6:46am

St Joseph’s Church and Seminary is among the most interesting, yet least visited, of Macau’s historic church complexes.  

Painted pastel lemon, the buildings are accessed via a sweeping flight of massive stone stairs up from the roadside. The former clerical residences house a fascinating small gallery of centuries-old religious art, and the church boasts a magnificently plastered, allegorical interior dome.

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This sense of being passed over by the tourist crowds may be because the cluster is located a long (and not particularly picturesque) walk from the city’s much photographed historic core around Senado Square and the side streets leading to St Paul’s ruins. 

The relative isolation of not being an immediate drawcard helps ensure that the complex offers a quieter, more reflective – and overall far more pleasant – visitor’s experience than can be found elsewhere in the city, especially on tourist-thronged weekend afternoons.

Panamanian art historian Cesar Guillen-Nunez’s new book, Macao’s College and Church of St Joseph: Splendour of the Baroque in China, should do much to stimulate further awareness about this superb heritage cluster, and forms a long-awaited companion volume to his earlier publication, Macao’s Church of St Paul: A Glimmer of the Baroque in China, from 2009. 

In this magisterial study of the Jesuit seminary and its extraordinary Baroque church, Guillen-Nunez – a long-term Macau resident – has finally completed his thorough exploration and documentation of Macau’s 17th- and 18th-century artistic connections between China and the Western world. The narrative starts in the late 17th century, around the period when the author’s earlier work on St Paul’s collegiate church ends, and continues until the late 18th century.

East-West connections from the 16th century onwards were far more bilateral than often assumed today. Jesuit priests, such as the famed Matteo Ricci, along with numerous less remembered Portuguese, Spanish, French, German and Italian religious figures were – for the most part – warmly received in China. All of them entered and left China through Macau, and left many traces of their sojourns in the Portuguese territory behind them. 

A lot of these fragments can be found in the archival collections of St Joseph’s Seminary, and within its built legacy. The wide-ranging evidence that these traces provide, and the manner in which the author explores and expands upon them, is what makes this work so compelling to anyone interested in the broader subject of bilateral cultural exchange. 

The broad global political and intellectual currents that emerged from early Enlightenment-era Europe in the 1680s had considerable influence in China – a phenomenon that continued through the 18th century. Unexpected cultural confluences which influenced China’s own artistic and cultural evolution in this time are explored in detail. 

The Kangxi Emperor’s Edict of Toleration of Christianity in 1692 – which recognised the existence of the Roman Catholic Church in China, prohibited attacks on its buildings and personnel, and allowed the practice of its religion by Chinese people – was a key historical turning point. 

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After this time, Western innovations in science and technology, and developments in the world of art, all entered the Middle Kingdom, mediated through Catholic missionaries. Translations of works such as Euclid’s Elements, which entered China at this time, closely influenced mid-Qing Chinese art and design, frequently in ways that were not apparent to later Chinese observers. 

Baroque art, which reached its high flowering in mid-18th century Europe and also had a number of examples in China, clearly involved a two-way artistic exchange, as the author explains. This magnificently illustrated work comprehensively explores various strands of Chinese artistic development throughout the late Ming and early-middle Qing periods, especially in the fields of architecture, painting and other visual arts, articulated and influenced by the West via the medium of Macau. 

Macao’s College and Church of St. Joseph: Splendour of the Baroque in China is solidly written and deeply scholarly, yet eminently readable and with occasional flashes of gentle wit. It is both a substantial contribution to local art history, and a lasting testimony to the author’s many years of dedicated, painstaking work in archives as far afield as Japan, Latin America, Lisbon and the United States, as well as in Macau. 

Read the My Life profile on Cesar Guillen-Nunez in the Post Magazine on February 11