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Preaching through beauty: Giuseppe Castiglione SJ

The Jesuit artist Brother Giuseppe Castiglione, who became famous in 18th century China, died 250 years ago, on the 17th of July 1766. He created hundreds of paintings, many of them to be found in the Palace Museum in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei, as well as in galleries all over the world. His paintings also decorate almost 40 Chinese postage stamps. Fr. Tom Casey believes we could learn from his example of preaching the Good News through the medium of beauty.

This July marks the 250th anniversary of the death of the gifted Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (19 July 1688 – 17 July 1766). Castiglione, a brother, occupied a lowly place in the Jesuit hierarchy, but an elevated position in the Imperial Court of China. In fact, between the years 1715 and 1766, this Italian Jesuit worked in the Beijing imperial household as an official painter for three consecutive Chinese emperors. He adopted the Chinese name of Lang Shining. He spent four years working on “One Hundred Horses”, a silk handscroll almost 8 metres in length. It is still considered one of the masterpieces of traditional Chinese painting (detail pictured here). Castiglione didn’t teach catechism and he didn’t write theology books. Instead, he used the beautiful medium of art to spread the Good News.

Giuseppe Castiglione gave something beautiful to China, an original synthesis and a new style of painting, which blended Western oil painting with Chinese ink wash painting. Dostoevsky famously wrote in his novel The Idiot that “the world will be saved by beauty”. But when it comes to real life, many dismiss Dostoevsky’s words as at least sentimental, if not downright idiotic. In fact, most people believe the world will be saved through things like politics, economics, and technology.

I side with the sentimentalists and the idiots of this world, because I believe that beauty will save us. Not the aesthetic beauty of paintings, but the beauty of saints. Their lives are radiant, full of the kind of splendour that captivates and attracts. There is a unique beauty about saints that draws people, because their lives possess an eloquence that even words cannot fully capture. It is the eloquence of lives lived in utter transparency to Christ. It is the radiance of faces that show the richness and depth of their inner lives. It is the warm invitation that calls us beyond the narrow constraints of self into ever-widening horizons.

As a good artist and an even better Christian, Giuseppe Castiglione wanted most of all to see his life becoming a work of art. He knew that in the final analysis, the only beauty that saves the world is the beauty of love. Whoever has love is not lost, but without it no one can be saved.