Monday, November 8, 2010

An Early Contextualization in China, Part 1

Today I want to begin to examine a historical attempt at visual contextualization. The example is found in China and is called the Sianfu Stele (or Nestorian Stele).  It was erected in 781 A.D. by Nestorian Christians in or around Hsian-Fu, was buried in 845 due to persecution, and rediscovered in 1625.  The text on the monument is written in Chinese and Syriac, and chronicles the diffusion of Nestorianism in China, including the initial declaration of the “Law of the Messiah” to the Tang Emperor Taizong around 635. 

The large Chinese characters at the top of the monument proclaim it as the “Chinese Monument of the History of the Luminous Religion of Daqin” (the church in China referred to itself as "The Luminous Religion of Daqin", Daqin being the Chinese language term for the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries A.D., and in later eras was also used to refer to the Syriac Christian churches).

An important aspect of the monument's attempt at contextualization is related to the theology of the Nestorian Church (known today as the Assyrian Church of the East): Nestorianism was a doctrine advanced by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428–431. The doctrine emphasizes the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus. Nestorius developed his Christological views as an attempt to rationally explain and understand the incarnation of the divine Logos in Jesus of Nazareth. His teachings became the root of controversy when he publicly challenged usage of the long-used title Theotokos (Mother of God) for the Virgin Mary. He suggested that the title denied Christ's full humanity, arguing instead that Jesus had two loosely joined natures, the divine Logos and the human Jesus. As such he proposed Christotokos (Mother of Christ) as a more suitable title for Mary.

Nestorius himself always insisted that his views were orthodox, though they were deemed heretical at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, leading to the Nestorian Schism, when churches supportive of Nestorius broke away from the rest of the Christian Church. A more elaborate Nestorian theology developed from there, which came to see Christ as having two loosely joined but distinct natures, or hypostases, the divine Logos and the human Christ. So, a brief definition of Nestorian Christology can be given as: "Jesus Christ, who is not identical with the Son but personally united with the Son, who lives in him, is one hypostasis and one nature: human." Not all churches affiliated with the Church of the East appear to have followed Nestorian Christology, however: the modern Assyrian Church of the East, which reveres Nestorius, is an example (I haven't researched where they differ in their beliefs). It is hard to say on what part of this continuum of belief that the creators of the Sianfu Stele fall.

With all of that introduction in place, I will continue next week with an examination of the motifs and symbols of the monument itself.

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