In Church missions there is often a clash of cultures between that of the missionary and that of the people to whom he brings the Gospel. For a missionary, finding a middle ground can be important in order to best communicate across this culture gap, and this is not always found through religion. A celebrated artist, Giuseppe Castiglione SJ achieved fame in the Court of the Qianlong Emperor in Beijing for his successful merging and synthesising of European and Chinese styles of painting.
Born in Milan to a wealthy family in 1688, Giuseppe Castiglione was taught to paint by a well-regarded Milanese artist, Carlo Cornara. He joined the Jesuits at nineteen, and spent time working as a missionary in Genoa and Lisbon, until he was requested to travel to China, where the Emperor wanted skilled Jesuit artists for his court.
Castiglione arrived in Macau in 1717. Shortly afterwards he moved to Beijing and began working in the enamelling workshop of the palace. In 1723 he was commissioned to create a work which would become his most famous piece – One Hundred Horses. Painstakingly painted on silk on an eight-metre long handscroll, this work took five years to create.
Combining his baroque style of European painting with what he had seen while working in China, Castiglione created a work joining the two vastly different cultures through a shared medium. The horses were largely featured in a European style while the pine trees which divide up the picture are a motif borrowed from Chinese sources. European rules of perspective are abided by, but the dramatic shading that characterises many Baroque paintings is very minimally seen here.
One Hundred Horses was never viewed by the Emperor who commissioned it, but when in 1735 he was succeeded by the Qianlong Emperor, Castiglione’s work was hailed as a masterpiece and he was appointed to a prominent position in the court. For the next three decades Castiglione continued to produce his unique works which show this dual influence of styles, much to the pleasure of the Court. In addition to painting, he designed gardens for the Emperor’s summer palace in a predominantly Western style, calling upon the aid of a fellow Jesuit, Michel Benoist, for the engineering side of the construction.
Giuseppe Castiglione died in 1766, having served as an artist for three emperors and brought about a new school of painting among the artists of the Court. Today his paintings can be seen in the Palace Museum in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and have been used to decorate over 40 Chinese postage stamps.