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

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

Thumbnail image from Matteo Ricci's De Christiana expeditione

Book 4

Ricci, Matteo, 1552-1610, and Nicolas Trigault, 1577-1628.
De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu.
(Lyon: Sumptibus Horatii Cardon, 1616)

St. Francis Xavier, one of the original companions of Ignatius, after completing apostolic missions in India and Japan, had attempted to continue on to China but died before his dream could be realized. Sent eastward several decades later, Matteo Ricci succeeded where Xavier had not, gaining entrance to the Imperial Court of China and ultimately gaining the Emperor’s patronage, if not access to his person. Ricci’s encounter with the highly sophisticated and literate Imperial Court was a landmark in both European and Chinese history, signaling the beginning of a period of cultural exchange that brought European technology and mathematics to the East and introduced the philosophical writings of Confucius (the Jesuits’ Latinized rendering of Kung Fu-Tzu) to the West.[8]

The title page shows Ricci, on the right, dressed as a mandarin, holding something that may represent the Host, while Xavier, on the left, is identified with a nimbus and a fruit-bearing staff, perhaps signifying the fruits of his apostolic endeavors. The map on the title page is loosely based on a map created by Ricci himself, the first map of China executed by a European. The framing decoration of the title page places China, symbolized by the map, onstage, like the action of Jesuit-produced drama. For Ricci and other Jesuits, China was both a field of missionary endeavor and a “stage” where dramas of engagement and conversion were acted out—and later reported in letters and books. Later many European Jesuit school dramas would be set in China and Japan.

When this book was published in 1616, Xavier, who had died in 1552 and later been beatified, was not yet a saint; in this illustration he is referred to as “blessed.” At the time this book was produced, the initial Jesuit penetration of China was still almost a current event. The excitement generated by the efforts of Ricci and others heightened expectations that the Society might be able to accomplish the conversion of the “Middle Kingdom,” while almost simultaneously Jesuits traveled in the 1580s to the court of the other great Asian monarch, the Mughal emperor Akbar. The journeys of Jesuits such as Ricci and Trigault were in fact the starting points of further explorations undertaken by the Society in the Far East, including the visit of one of Ricci’s colleagues to the Kaifeng Jews, then one of the world’s most far-flung outposts of Judaism. Already the Society of Jesus was moving toward a worldwide presence, having already established themselves in the New World and conducted missions in Ethiopia and Tartary.[9]

This title page shows characteristic attention to some of the details of the journeys undertaken by the Jesuits (note Ricci’s mandarin hat, robe, and shoes), but also continues the tradition of late Renaissance decorative themes popular with the first Jesuit book creators, such as putti, classical capitals, etc. Intended for a European audience, this illustrative presentation identifies the accomplishments of the Jesuits as far more important than those of the ancient civilization that they had encountered, yet Ricci’s letters do take a serious view of Chinese institutions and customs.

The book’s popularity (it went through at least sixteen printings in the early seventeenth century) was due in part to the details of life in China it provided: descriptions of spices, geological facts, religious practices, markets, and law courts are interspersed with accounts of the successes and setbacks experienced by the Jesuit mission. China was presented as both exotic and fascinating, and as a potentially very fertile ground for further penetration by European missionaries (we might note the parallels with how China is viewed today by the cultural and business communities in the United States). Notably, the Chinese are not portrayed here as “barbaric,” but as part of a complex society worthy of serious regard by both missionaries and the readers of their letters. Trigault, who arrived in China the year that Ricci died, is the editor of Ricci’s letters.

[8] Confucius Sinarum philosophus, sive, scientia Sinensis Latine exposita (Paris: Apud Danielem Horthemels, 1687). This translation was made by the Jesuit Prosper Intorcetta (1625–1696).

[9] Until their expulsion in 1633, Jesuits were active in Ethiopia, producing a catechism in Amharic and converting its emperor Susyenos in 1621. "Tartary" was the term commonly used in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the monarchies that succeeded the empire of Genghis Khan, usually known today as Mongols. The term "Mongul" was employed for only one branch of this ethnic group.

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