The Seminary’s Treasure is not only the Catholic Church’s heritage but also a cultural heritage of Macau which is universally recognized. The word Catholic means “universal.” As a consequence, Catholic culture speaks of all things that are universally good and the message from it is intended for everyone regardless of their race or beliefs.
As a researcher, I am a firm believer in the spirit of universalism in society. In my attempt to communicate with the local community, a small step was taken with the University of St Joseph community at the Treasure of Sacred Arts of St Joseph’s Seminary in the previous academic year. A small group of students and professors was invited to discuss the curiosities with the Sacred Art objects at the Seminary. Among the various objects, the painting of the Salus Populi Romani, attributed to Saint Luke the Evangelist, captured the attention of many. Both Christian and non-Christian participants were curious as to the identity of the artist and iconography of the image.
Who is the artist? The attempt to identify the original “artist” of a Baroque-period painting would be a great conquest in itself. Before we jump into this conquest, it is crucial to understand the cultural context of this venerable icon. This icon was a subject of great interest among the missionaries because of its special association with the Society of Jesus. It was the third Superior General of the Order, Francis Borgia who made the official copies of this icon possible. The very first replica was commissioned by Borgia in 1569. Granted permission by Pope Pius V, a detailed account of the first reproduction is recorded in Vida del P. Francisco de Borja, an unpublished biography of St Francis Borgia by Dionisio Vázquez, S.J, dated 1586.
In his account, the first copyist is only recorded as “un gran pintor de Roma” (“a great painter from Rome”) at the Jesuit Casa Professa in Rome. Borgia made further appraisal on the painter’s “desire and devotion to deliver the true and perfect portrait” of the image of Mother of God. According to recent studies, the original icon at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is the work of an anonymous author dated between the 9th and 12th centuries. The painting was not a creative endeavour of a certain artist but rather the emphasis was put on the artist’s ability to reproduce the image with accuracy. In this particular instance, a special attention was paid to the sacred experience of the process which was left to the painter in solitude, insisted by the Pope. Through this process, the icon attained mobility across the globe through reproduction.
According to the Jesuit scholar Pasquale d’Elia (1890-1963), this symbolic icon arrived in this part of the world including Macau, China and Japan by 1580. He records that Matteo Ricci was delighted when a “very well painted” copy of the Salus Populi image arrived in 1599 from Rome. In the following year, Días who served as the rector of the College of St Paul’s in Macau presented another image to Ricci, which was originally painted in Spain and transported via the Philippines. Based upon my recent investigation, it was discovered that the oldest copy of this icon that exists in East Asia is now preserved at the Tokyo National Museum, dated between the late 16th and early 17th centuries, by an unknown artist. This period also corresponds to the time when the Jesuit painter Giovanni Niccolò (1560-1626) was in Japan. In 1614, Niccolò returned to Macau due to the persecutions of Catholicism in Japan. In Macau, he became the first master to teach European painting to the Chinese and Japanese. Macau is a gateway between the West and China, and the reproduction of this icon may have been possible through a few different sources, based upon the copies produced in Europe or via Japan.
In response to the initial question, the artist was not recorded or could not be known due to the political circumstances of the era in China. In fact, a pupil of Niccolò, Jacopo Niva also made a copy of this icon in Peking and Macau in 1604 and 1606. Art historian Michael Sullivan explains that the work was done in secret because there was a danger for the artist to serve the emperor if his skill became known.
Iconography. The word “iconography” initially was a terminology to describe a collection of portraits. However, in modern times, it functions as an artistic element to identify symbolic figures or saints. An icon is regarded as holy in itself and veneration is paid to it as a symbol of the saints they represent.
The name attributed to this type of icon representing Mary with her son in her arms is “Hodegetria,” a word meaning “Guide of the Way.” Jesus rests lightly on his mother’s arm with one hand raised in a blessing and holding a book in his proper left hand. It appears that he is looking up at Mary while she is gazing at the people. It represents how the Divine Son connects with his people: He is the one who guides the Way of those whom Mary looks at through her intercession. Another beautiful element is the mappa (or mappula) in her hand. This handkerchief that Mary holds represents her readiness to wipe away the tears of those who turn to her.
* MA Candidate in History and Heritage Studies at USJ.