Jesuit Legacy in Beijing: Sacred Buildings and Transcultural Spaces

By Lianming Wang

Following the “global turn”[1] in Art History in the 1990s, and particularly stimulated by Gauvin Alexander Bailey’s path-breaking Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542–1773,[2] the study of Jesuit art and architecture has grown into a remarkably dynamic field that provides marvellous insights for reading art history through a cross-cultural and transregional lens. As leaders and patrons of the Catholic global expansion, Jesuit missionaries reinforced European exchanges with Latin America and Asia – particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in China – and staged an unprecedented global encounter of arts, sciences, and cultures. A missing link of this and the key to understand China’s splendid “Jesuit era” is the long-vanished architectural heritage in its imperial capital, Beijing. Nearly all of the structures built or commissioned were confiscated, damaged, and/or completely rebuilt in the following centuries, and thus nearly ignored by early-modern historiography due to the absence of their material bodies.

Conceptually, these structures are now reborn from ruins. Following a broader awareness of global cultural context, my volume Jesuitenerbe in Peking: Sakralbauten und transkulturelle Räume, 1600–1800 (Winter Verlag, 2020) re-evaluates the unprecedented role of Jesuit missionaries engaged in the extensive Sino-European exchanges by exploring three key ecclesiastical structures built by the Portuguese and French Missions in Beijing: the residences of the Nantang (built 1610–1711), the Dongtang (built 1659–1721) and the Beitang (built 1699–1703), and their adjacent sacred and transcultural spaces, which unified and intersected with various religious and secular interests, culture-specific practices of arts and knowledge, and transnational institutions and networks. Given their multifaceted nature, the volume follows an interdisciplinary approach. Drawing perspectives and methodologies from the mission studies, social history, architectural history, heritage studies, the history of science, and the emerging field of the transcultural art history, it questions the limits and singularity of Western art history, including its Eurocentrism.

Figure 1: The burning of the Nantang church during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, in: Le Monde Illustré 2276 (1900). Paris, Bibliothèque national de France, FOL-LC2-2943.

Conceptually, my work follows the guiding concept of the research project “Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices” (2013–2019), which had been carried out at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien. Adopting its key notion of “aesthetic practice(s),” I attempt to highlight the fact that certain historical, social, and transcultural practices, despite being hardly recognisable in the final architectural and spatial products, were essential components of the material heritage of the Beijing Jesuits. Following this, I primarily look at the sociological, cognitive, and receptive dimensions of the Jesuit structures and their processual and temporary moments in the course of global aesthetic and intellectual entanglements, reversals, and penetrations. The initial three chapters concern the Jesuit architectural presence’s legitimacy in a non-Christian environment, its embedding in public spaces, and its self-representation in the urban landscape.

Building upon a detailed account of actors, financial aspects, and social networks involved in constructing the Jesuit structures, Chapter One unveils how the “Jesuit narratives” in Chinese-Christian propaganda pamphlets and published missionaries’ correspondence contributed to the legitimacy of their architectural presence. The chapter’s primary interest lies in deconstructing a glittering, widely circulated myth: that the construction of the Jesuit structures was backed by the Chinese emperors. My argument that the emperors neither funded nor supported the Jesuits’ ambition to erect ecclesiastical structures challenges the previous historiography. As I reveal in the end of the chapter, a large portion of the Jesuit properties in Beijing was either granted or offered by the Qing court for non-ecclesiastical purposes, and the granting of land properties was instrumentalised by the Jesuits as the emperors’ support for Catholicism. 

Figure 2: Ferdinando Buonaventura Moggi (attr.), the interior of the Nantang church, ink on paper, 50.5 x 55.5 cm, ca. 1730. Lisbon: Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, Cart. Ms–XI. CM 758.

As the following chapter suggests, Jesuit propaganda went far beyond the fabrication of a “founding myth.” Delving into the social dimensions, Chapter Two elaborates the ways in which Jesuit churches and residences were established as urban highlights, public monuments, and repositories of collective memory in the context of early-modern urban exploration; they functioned primarily as huiguan (guilds and native-place lodges), landmarks or cultural sites, cabinets of curiosities, and sites of memory. A critical assessment of their topography and neighbouring cultural milieus first suggests inhomogeneous degrees of accessibility with the target audience, which contributed to their success in the public sphere, including imperial exam candidates and high-ranking officials, as well as flâneur travellers and foreign envoys, who produced the majority of the travel writings that spread the sites’ fame.

Their status, similar to that of state temples, as I further demonstrate, benefited from the Jesuits’ conscious practices of constructing and displaying public timekeeping devices (bell towers, pipe organs, and sundials) and memorial objects (imperial tablets and steles, memorial arches), which transformed the Jesuit structures into public cabinets of curiosities and legitimate “sites of memory” (lieux de mémoire).[3] A striking fact in this connection is that both the 1692 stele engraved with the “Edict of Tolerance” and the influential tablet “Chijian tianzhutang” (The Hall of the Lord of Heaven, Bestowed by the Emperor) originally hung on the Beitang church’s pediment, were faked by the Beijing Jesuits.

Figure 3: The façade of the Beitang church, details from: unknown artist, the French Beitang residence from a bird’s eye view, color on silk, 185.7 x 130 cm, after 1786 (?). Paris, Bibliothèque national de France, RC-B-0074.

As a matter of fact, the Jesuits wished for the success of their buildings above all else. Questioning the limits of its European frame of reference, Chapter Three engages in focused discourse on the Jesuit architectural “style” and “typology” as informed by the eighteenth-century building of the Nantang church. Instead of incorporating a remarkable Il-Gesù model, a non-Jesuit type of the Baroque “Bilderbau”[4] (frescoed architecture) with an enlarged nave and crossing was chosen, with a primary purpose of functioning as an architectural frame for displaying trompe l’oeil murals. Copied from Andrea Pozzo’s SJ (1642–1709) treatise[5] kept in Beijing, the ambition of having such a “Bilderbau” was inspired by the successful Jesuit frescoes in seventeenth-century Rome, as well as the church building of the Beitang, with its splendid frescoes, which was completed in 1703. This process can only be understood in the context of the intense competition between the Portuguese and French kings. As I suggest in the chapter’s second part, this competition is also crucial to understanding the choice of identity-granting architectural “modules”[6] in terms of their power mechanism inside the Society of Jesus.

The last two chapters discuss the Jesuit spaces’ entanglement with Qing imperial and transcultural spaces and the roles their gardens played in the early-modern global dynamics of horticultural and hydraulic practices. This is achieved by examining their functions as walk-in spaces of synesthetic experience, experimental spaces of artistic entanglements, and as places of fruitful encounters of knowledge. These sites were the missing link between Christian-Jesuit art, European Renaissance culture and knowledge, and Qing court practices.

Figure 4: The parterre garden of the Beitang residence from the bird’s eye view, monochrome drawing on paper, 23.4 x 29 cm, undated. Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, DRWG 1- Russian, no. 140.

The selected case studies from the Qianlong Emperor’s (r. 1735–1796) court – ranging from palatial spaces linked to events, to political spaces of negotiation and to the emperor’s personal spaces of representation – are used to illustrate how the aesthetic and intellectual implications were determined by actors and the public and were, in turn, instrumentalised for the purpose of the Qing political agenda and the subject-formation of the Manchu elites. The quadratura became part of the dazzling palatial interiors as evidence of the Manchus’ access to the others’ vision; the structure of the Christian altar became a space-defining screen and further a gesture of imperial domination; Mantua’s Sala dei Cavalli  was adopted as a model for the emperor’s transcultural pictorial monument as an effective means of hegemony for the propagation of a Pan-Asian, multicultural empire and the new world order; Constantine Hall in the Vatican City was transformed into the emperor’s political space of negotiations in Jehol; and, last but not least, the Jesuit use of water was mingled with Buddhist and Taoist visions and became an essential part of the Qing political landscape.

Drawing on a variety of recently uncovered images from St. Petersburg, Paris and Washington D.C., this volume provides a thorough insight into the global entanglement of the art and architecture of a historically important religious order, and significantly contributes to current debates on global art history. The present volume has also been awarded the 2021 Academy Prize of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.


[1] Claire Farago, “The ‘Global Turn’ in Art History: Why, When, and How Does It Matter?” in: Daniel Savoy (ed.), The Globalization of Renaissance Art: A Critical Review, Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2017, 299–313.

[2] Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art on the Jesuit Mission in Asia and Latin America, 1542–1773, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

[3] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” in: Representations 26 (1989), 7–24.

[4] David Ganz, Barocke Bilderbauten: Erzählung, Illusion und Institution in römischen Kirchen 1580–1700, Petersberg: Imhof, 2002, 10.

[5] Andrea Pozzo, Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum 2. – In quâ docetur modus expeditissimus […], vol. 2, Rome: Komarek, 1693.

[6] I have adopted the concept of “module” from Lothar Ledderose, Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, 1.

Lianming Wang is currently Assistant Professor of Chinese Art History at Heidelberg University. His areas of research include early-modern global encounters of arts and culture, artistic practices and materiality related to transterritorial animals, and the archaeology of early China. Wang has organized many workshops and conferences related to Sino-European exchanges, including The Jesuit Legacies: Images, Visuality, and Cosmopolitanism in Qing China (chief organizer, 2015), Reframing Chinese Objects: Practices of Collecting and Displaying in Europe and the Islamic World, 1400-1800 (co-organizer, 2018), and Before the Silk Road: Eurasian Interactions in the First Millennium BC (chief-organizer, 2019). In 2018/2019, Wang was a fellow of the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin, and was awarded the Klaus-Georg and Sigrid Hengstberger Prize by the Heidelberg University in 2018, and the Academy Prize by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in 2021. He is now at work on his project Transgressive Animals, Territorial Locality, and the Qing Global Histories (2021–2023), funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

Citation: Lianming Wang, Jesuit Legacy in Beijing: Sacred Buildings and Transcultural Spaces, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.04.2021,

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 19. April). Jesuit Legacy in Beijing: Sacred Buildings and Transcultural Spaces. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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