Several factors played into the Asian artisan’s interpretation of Christian saintly figures. In the beginning, the artisan imbued Asian qualities and features, because that was what he knew best. Facial features of the Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints, may therefore display eyes with epicanthic folds and almond shapes. Sometimes, an artisan made up with “feeling” any shortcomings in technical skill. And yet, other times, evangelists more or less deliberately translated Christian symbols into locally accepted Asian symbols.
Thus, a painting of the Madonna and Child in China may borrow the traits of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, because her qualities would be more familiar to a newly converted native. In such an image, the Christ child might hold a lotus flower, the Asian symbol of enlightenment, and a water vase may be represented to contain the water of life. There are other examples of this type of symbolic assimilation that work as evangelical visual aids, such as the five clouds motif used to represent the Holy Spirit, or the use of carved mythical Naga serpents to guard a Christian cross.
There are also noted exceptions. In Japan, where St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit, is credited with introducing Christianity in 1549, the faith is seen as a new vessel, which should stand apart from non-Christian symbols. A similar belief prevails in Korea, where missionaries struggled for two hundred years, starting in the 1590s, to evangelize the Korean people, against all odds.
By 1521, the Spanish had arrived in the Philippines and Christianity was then established, through the efforts of Augustinian missionaries. Here Catholicism has found what might be the strongest footing in all of Asia. Santos production flourished, thanks to the many skills and talents of the local artisans, and to the demand for quality Christian statuary in the developing New Spain market.
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