St. Ignatius Loyola, from the Ratio Studiorum (1606)

Books Illustrating the First Two Centuries
of Contemplation and Action of the Society of Jesus

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Book 9

Avril, Philippe, 1654-1698.
Voyage en divers etats d’Europe et d’Asie entrepris pour découvrir un nouveau chemin à la Chine …
(Paris: Claude Barbin, Jean Boudot, and George et Louis Josse, 1692)

By the last decades of the seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries and explorers had probed the edges of Central Asia from several directions. In the 1640s Paul Beke had reached the frontier of Crimean Tartary via Austria, Hungary, and Moldavia, sending back a unique account of a remote Hungarian-speaking village in what is now Ukraine,[12] but no Jesuit had traveled from Europe into the Mongolian heartland. Seeking to further the contacts made earlier by Ricci and others, Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688) sent a letter back to Europe detailing the triumphs and setbacks of the Society’s mission in China.[13] Father Philippe Avril departed in 1684 on an expedition to find an eastward passage to China.

Although the Tartar authorities refused Avril passage through their land and he returned six years later to Europe not having found a path to the East, the Jesuit’s letters provide a detailed description of parts of China, Muscovy, Moldavia and of Tartary itself. Avril perished in a shipwreck eight years after his return from the east.

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Thumbnail image from Philippe Avril

The opening page of the third book of this volume (page 165) shows five sledges traveling over a frozen waterway—perhaps the “Sea of Tartary” or Arctic Ocean? Improbably, two of the sledges are being drawn by a team of large-headed dogs, their long tails curled upwards, and a reindeer, the latter in lead position. A third wind-driven sledge carries either a reindeer or a shaman wearing a reindeer headdress as a passenger. Two other sledges, both with sails and without harnessed teams, move across the winter landscape.

The buildings along the shoreline have a generally European appearance, although a few subtle architectural touches give them a faintly Asian flavor. The artist has also included an advancing snowstorm moving from the left of the engraving. This sympathetic and charming portrayal of one aspect of life

in Central Asia conveys some of the receptivity which Jesuit missionaries and explorers retained as they moved through this remote and potentially hostile environment.

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Thumbnail image from Philippe Avril

This headpiece on page 231, at the beginning of Book Four, shows the public execution of a miscreant, with a Jesuit in attendance. The apostolic act of ministry to the condemned is frequently given special prominence in the Society’s accounts of its activities. This illustration suggests the relationship between Jesuit drama and the actual world, both externally configured and internally understood, in which Jesuits worked. The improbably Neoclassic building in the middle distance provides the backdrop for this scene, whose audience forms a frame for the dramatic action.       

The condemned man kneels in supplication before a crucifix held by a priest, who offers the consoling prospect of salvation through acceptance of Christianity. Nearby the executioner waits, a bit impatiently, axe in hand. Occasions such as this public execution provided Jesuits with the opportunity to “care for souls” (cura animarum) in extremis, as well as provide a stage from which to proclaim their faith and to demonstrate their apostolic zeal. This illustration therefore shows us crucial points in both the spiritual journey of the Jesuit priest and perhaps also of the condemned man, while it also calls upon us to reflect upon the scenes in Societatis Jesu vitae et sanguinis where Jesuits themselves fall under the executioner’s blade.

[12] Benda Kálmán, "Csöbörcsök, egy tatárországi magyar falu 16.–18. században," Századok 119, (1985): 895–916, 907.

[13] Lettre ́ecrite de la Chine où ľon voit ľétat present du Christianisme dans cêt empire & les biens quòn y peutfaire pour le salut des amês (Paris: G. Martin, 1682).

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