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Jesus in China

A California priest is helping replace stained-glass windows at a Shanghai cathedral smashed during the Cultural Revolution. They abound with Chinese imagery.

July 16, 2006|Adam Minter | Adam Minter is a writer based in Shanghai. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, ARTnews, the Rake and West.

The pews of Shanghai's St. Ignatius Cathedral are empty except for two elderly women stooped over rosaries, bathed in morning sunlight turned blue by stained glass. Their prayers are strong and insistent, but as their words rise to the gothic arches framing this century-old church, they soften and disappear. Across the transept, Father Thomas Lucas, a Jesuit and University of San Francisco art professor, looks up with pinched impatience. He paces and stuffs his thick hands into the pockets of his black jeans. "What's taking so long?"

Suddenly, high above the tile floor, a rendering of what one of the cathedral windows will soon look like edges into the clear glass panels of the window's frame. Wo Ye, the Beijing-born artist working with Lucas to replace the stained glass that was smashed during the Cultural Revolution, rushes in with shuffling feet and a ho-ho-ho laugh. She flips open her cellphone and dials the laborers she has conned into climbing onto the steep roof to put the rendering in place. She directs them left, then right, until images of bamboo shoots sprout behind the glass. "What do you think?" Lucas asks Wo as they stand side by side, arms crossed.

Lucas is the latest California Jesuit to work in and around Shanghai's great cathedral, completed in 1910 and ransacked in 1966. For almost 80 years, the Los Gatos-based California Jesuit mission has had strong ties to China, founding universities, sending teachers to seminaries and promoting a Chinese identity for Catholicism. Lucas' mission--the design and installation of roughly 2,500 square feet of stained glass--is as important to his Jesuit superiors as it is to China's Catholics as they emerge from decades of suppression and isolation.

Today, with 20% of the work complete, the windows in the first level of the 85-foot-high, 300-foot-long French gothic cathedral blaze with Chinese iconography, characters and designs. These windows are radical, and they have angered conservative Chinese priests who favor the Caucasian gospel characters depicted here when the church held its first Mass, long before communism arrived. Wo and Lucas, with the support of Shanghai's bishop and leading foreign clerics, have so far persevered against the opposition. And Lucas says he understands why the Chinese Church conservatives are unnerved. "It is Chinese flesh on European bones," he likes to say of the windows. "It is a dialogue between East and West." Something that isn't always accepted here.

On a narrow street a few miles north of St. Ignatius, the wooden doors of a small Romanesque church open to reveal a shrine to Mary. It sits on a tile floor that tilts toward another door leading to a rear courtyard and, around a corner, a fluorescent-lighted studio. Sister Han, one of three young nuns assigned to this, the only Chinese stained-glass workshop devoted to religious art, solders the grillwork surrounding a sinuous bamboo stalk while, at the other end of the room, Wo and Lucas hover over a glass-top table. Together they move around the glass puzzle.

Lucas had hoped the shoots in the windows along the upper register of the church would be gold, but Wo argued for a healthy green. "In China," she explains, with a joking, authoritarian tone as she taps her left foot, "golden bamboo is dead bamboo." Lucas smiles. "Church art," he says, "sometimes requires compromise."

Born in Placerville and raised in Sacramento, Lucas, 54, joined the Jesuits soon after graduating from Santa Clara University in 1975. While completing 15 years of extensive training and education in Santa Barbara, New York, Rome and Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, he honed his college hobby. With the order's encouragement, Lucas earned a reputation as a significant liturgical artist. It is a rarefied field; he has perhaps two dozen peers in the United States. He restored the Rome apartments of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, as part of his dissertation project, and joined the University of San Francisco in 1995.

Lucas and Wo, 44, a traditional Chinese porcelain painter trained in liturgical art in Milan and at St. John's University in Minnesota, share the task of replacing the St. Ignatius windows. She provides the designs while consulting with Lucas on how to make them technically feasible, Catholic and also Chinese. Though the details are still evolving, Lucas and Wo decided the overall scheme three years ago, and its major themes are divided among the three major structural levels of the cathedral, each of which is defined by a unique bank of windows. Now the nuns are assembling colorful abstractions of Chinese bamboo, meant to represent paradise, for the massive windows that will illuminate the highest level of the church.

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