Audio: East meets West - Virgin & child ivory carving
Christopher Cook and Marjorie Trusted talk about how East meets West in an ivory carving of the Virgin and Child.
Part of the Proms 2004 Performing Art season of talks.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: On the face of it, the Virgin and Child carved in ivory as the 17th century stepped into the 18th wouldn't seem to have much in common with the principal theme of the Proms this year - east meets west, but this object of devotion created for the western Catholic world had a remarkable eastern provenance.
The carver was probably Chinese and it may well have been made in the Philippines. The ivory itself came from Africa. So if this Virgin and Child tells a very specific Christian story, it also has a history that embraces conquest and colonial power by the 16th century's only superpower, Spain, with an empire that spanned the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was after all Philip II of Spain who graciously lent his name to that archipelago of islands in the South Seas of China, the Philippines.
Well, here with me now is Marjory Trusted, senior curator in the sculpture department here at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Marjory, it's a small object, but it is absolutely exquisite, isn't it?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Yes, it's the Virgin and Child and it's got a very tender, intimate quality. The Virgin with very flowing drapery, is holding the Child and he's clutching onto her veil with one of his hands. It's also got beautiful traces of gilding and colour.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Which throws the Virgin's face into relief and indeed the Child's really. In a sense, your eye is drawn to this crucial relationship between Virgin and Child.
MARJORY TRUSTED: Absolutely, yes. The stance of the Virgin, it's very graceful. There's a slight contrapposto but it's also a very solemn serious piece as well.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Where would the idea of what the Virgin and Child should look like have come from for this Chinese carver - what would he have seen that said 'This is the model that I should carve from'?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Well, he would have had European models - possibly engravings, possibly wood engravings and that may explain this very linear quality, especially in the drapery - you can see it's very precise.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Almost like the lines that you would expect to find on a wood engraving as the drapery falls to the ground.
MARJORY TRUSTED: Exactly, exactly. There may have been sculptures as well but prints were far easier to transport out to the Far East than sculptures, so that was the obvious model to use and sometimes Flemish prints, in fact, usually Flemish prints rather than Spanish.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: And these would've been given to him. The missionaries or the Spanish authorities would have said 'this is what you're to carve'.
MARJORY TRUSTED: There were various missionary orders - there were the Augustinians, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Dominicans and the relevant priest would have given a model, as you said, to the Chinese carver. Although, once the tradition got going, not exactly replicas but variants continued, so they had the general idea.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Now, when you look closely, what can you see in this ivory that tells you that in fact it was made by a Chinese artist?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Well, you're right, although it's a Christian subject, stylistically there is no doubt there's an oriental flavour. I suppose the most immediate thing that strikes you is the faces - the face of the Virgin and indeed, the face of the Child. The face of the Virgin is very high forehead and heavily lidded eyes and there's also this wonderful detail at the back which perhaps you might come down later and have a look at, some of you in the audience. There's a tuck at the back of the robe, a very stylised little carved tuck which you see in Chinese statuettes as well and is actually rather beautiful but not as naturalistic as you'd expect if it was a western European sculpture.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: When you look at the face of the Virgin, do you suspect that what you're also looking at is one of the traditional Chinese goddesses?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Well that's another very interesting parallel. There is a Chinese goddess, Guan Yin, who is the goddess of fertility, and she was often presented with a child, her son, and what seems to have happened is that the Christian market for the Virgin and Child statuettes stimulated the market for the Guan Yin statuettes and indeed they started carving ivory figures of Guan Yin which were inspired by the Christian subject. It used to be thought it was the other way round. It used to be thought the Chinese carvers were harking back to their own culture but in fact it seems to have been the reverse and that's rather fascinating.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Complete reversal of the traditional model in which the coloniser, wherever he or she comes from, imposes their own values by finding something equivalent in the culture they're colonising and this is quite different.
MARJORY TRUSTED: It's actually quite a fertile sharing of ideas, yes.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Is there something about the feet too that perhaps betrays its origin?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Yes.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: They look rather different from what you'd expect to find.
MARJORY TRUSTED: That's another interesting detail. The feet are partly hidden but they're actually visible beneath the drapery of the robe. They're sort of veiled, if you like. You can see the shape of them but you can't see the feet. Now, the robe is really quite long, it covers them. Now, in a Virgin and Child carving in Spain, for example, you would expect to see the tip of the foot extending beyond the robe or perhaps you wouldn't see the feet at all but this is a rather strange way of doing the feet and it's possible that because the feet in China were considered erotic, women's feet were considered erotic and so, this was a way of suggesting them in a rather tantalising way without carving them and again, it probably came from a Chinese tradition rather than a western tradition.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: All of this begs the question: how on earth did these Chinese carvers this Chinese carver who made this particular Virgin and Child, arrive in Manila in the Philippines?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Well, it was part of a much larger picture of trade in the 16th century, 17th century, 18th century. there were… Manila was a very international community. There were a lot of Chinese craftsmen, tradesmen, merchants there. There were also Portuguese, Japanese, Spanish, of course, and what happened was, soon after the Spanish took over the Philippines, which was in the 1560s, China realised that this would be a very good base for trading and that they would, they hoped, get some silver from the Spanish. So, a lot of Chinese came over to Manila and settled there.
Some didn't, some just sent their goods from the mainland, which was about eight days sail away from the Philippines. Then the goods, which would include spices, porcelain and silks and satin, all sorts of luxury goods, would be shipped from the Philippines east to Mexico and then they'd travel overland out the other side back to Spain. So, it was a very long voyage but then the silver from Mexico, which was of course under Spanish control, would then be shipped back to China. The ship that sailed from the Philippines to Mexico, Acapulco, was known as the Manila Galleon and it sailed once a year and it was loaded up with luxury goods including ivories and then there'd be a return journey with silver that would go back to China.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: And there's a wonderful letter, isn't there, from a woman in Acapulco when the first Manila Galleon landed. Her sheer excitement and surprise, it was as if she'd been literally in Aladdin's cave.
MARJORY TRUSTED: Yes. Well, it must've been something that's very difficult for us to imagine today - this idea of seeing not only strange materials but beautifully made objects using techniques that were unfamiliar to the West, so, perhaps the most obvious one is porcelain, Chinese porcelain, which was much imitated in the West although they could never quite get the same effect. So, as you say, this was exotic luxury goods which were totally unfamiliar, and from another world in effect.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: How were the Chinese community in Manila regarded by the Spanish? After all they were not the indigenous population, they'd arrived and presumably they were quite large by the end of the 17th century.
MARJORY TRUSTED: Yes, there were many thousands of Chinese and the Spaniards were in the minority in the Philippines. It was not a very attractive place for the Spanish to settle unlike central and South America where the Spanish went in many, many… great, great numbers.
The Chinese, there were difficult times. There were even massacres of the Chinese by the Spanish and there even was, even though it was a marvellous international community and very cosmopolitan, there were tensions between the different groups. The Chinese had their own community. They lived in a certain part of Manila. In one way they were respected, so when tensions weren't running high, their abilities as craftsmen and tradesmen were much respected, but, as I say, there were also cultural differences, religious differences - the missionaries who were there of course to convert the inhabitants to Catholicism had a limited success. Unlike South America where there were many quite genuine conversions, conversions in the Philippines were probably rather superficial sometimes. It was just convenient to be converted to Catholicism.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: But do you have a sense that the Spanish authorities, with all the people who had gathered in this wonderful multicultural city of Manila by the end of the 17th century, the Spanish authorities were once again using the missionaries, if you like, to really press their colonial claims as much as the claims of Christianity?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Mm.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: In other words, the missionaries were there as an agent of the Spanish state to secure the territory by making the people subservient.
MARJORY TRUSTED: Yes. I'm sure that the phrase that was used, by later historians, used of the way that the Spanish wanted to settle in the Philippines, was they were in search of Christians and spices. The conversions were… I think the missionaries had a real sincere wish to convert everybody to the true faith but, it went hand in hand with the power of the Spanish because obviously it did help keep people under control, so it's difficult to separate the two activities at times.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: How easy would the journey from Spain, if you were a flustering young missionary and you were intent upon doing your Christian duty, how easy would the journey be from Spain to the Philippines?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Not easy, not easy at all. The journey from Spain to Mexico and the rest of South America was a considerable one - weeks and months, but the journey to the Philippines was two years, or it could be two years.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Two years?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Two years. Because, first of all they had to go to Central/South America and they had to go overland, each journey depended on the right conditions. If you were travelling by sea it depended on the right winds and of course there were only certain times when ships would sail - usually annually. And, it was also hazardous. It was a very hazardous undertaking. There were women who took the voyage but understandably, it was usually men - either adventurers or missionaries, but many missionaries apparently stopped in Central and South America. They didn't go any further - it was too risky.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: What made that journey from Central America across the Pacific such a difficult and risky journey?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Well, it was a difficult route that had in fact… It was in fact discovered as I say in the 1560s. They had to go a long way north. It was a very, very long way. Some of the ships were not in good condition. There were all sorts of things that could happen, storms that could blow up. I mean, in those days, a long sea voyage was going to be risky for natural reasons.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Was it harder to get home than it was to get there? Was the journey back across the pacific to New Spain in Mexico more difficult?
MARJORY TRUSTED: I don't think it was more difficult but certainly again, it had to be navigated properly. Once they'd found the route, it wasn't, in theory, difficult, but, as I say, it depended on the conditions of the sea.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: This all begs the question: why on earth didn't they simply leave Spain, travel round Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope and go, as it were, that route? Why this extraordinary journey across the Atlantic and then across the Pacific - it's almost two-thirds of the way around the world?
MARJORY TRUSTED: That was because of the Portuguese, because of course you mention how powerful the Spanish were in the 16th century, they were rivalled in terms of exploration by the Portuguese. The Portuguese had discovered Africa, the Portuguese then went on to India and further east and settled in Macau which was not very far from the Philippines and in fact, in the late 15th century, the Pope made an agreement, the Treaty of Tordesillas, between Portugal and Spain, dividing up the world between them so that Portugal would have what we could call, in effect, the East and Spain, the West, and that was what led to these, as you say, roundabout ways of getting to the Philippines. But it was because there was this agreement between Spain and Portugal.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: It sounds a little like trying to take a journey on a train nowadays, doesn't it? A long journey. Returning to the ivory. As I said, the ivory itself would have come from Africa. We've perhaps lost the sense of just how prized ivory was through the 17th and 18th century along with gold and other precious stones, it was a very valuable material. What was it, do you think, that made it so valuable?
MARJORY TRUSTED: I think there are various reasons. I mean, one of the reasons that we can appreciate ourselves now is that it is a very beautiful organic material. It has wonderful qualities. It can be carved very beautifully so that you get this delicate linear quality. On the other hand, it came, as you said, it came from Africa - this would have been an African elephant's tusk, so it had that mystery, that quality of coming from a distant land and it was relatively expensive, costly. As you say, we perhaps can't appreciate so much today, especially in this museum, where we have a marvellous collection of literally hundreds of ivories, that these were very unusual objects. Some of the ivories from the Philippines went to monasteries in Spain. They were sent back by people who travelled to the Philippines and brought them back, so they were perhaps bishops.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: As objects of devotion?
MARJORY TRUSTED: Partly as objects of devotion, partly because they were very costly rare items and so they were displayed in the equivalent of the treasury of the monastery and in fact you can see that this particular ivory, it's in really excellent condition. I mean, it's got no noticeable damage at all and ivory can be damaged quite easily - it's not a particularly hard material and it's been looked after ever since it was carved - it's been treasured. So, there was a… there were two sides to this kind of object. On one hand, as you say, it's the Virgin and Child that inspires devotion and on the other hand, it is a very precious work of art.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Marjory Trusted, thank you very much indeed.
MARJORY TRUSTED: Thank you.