Monday, March 3, 2014

Mongolian Warrior Paintings Depict the Armor of God from Ephesians 6:10-20

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My friend, Ariunaa, a Southeast Asian living in Mongolia, previously worked with me in order to facilitate the creation of a contextualized worship banner based on one of my bowl paintings (here and here).  She recently emailed me about a Mongolian Christian artist that had completed a series of contextualized paintings based on Ephesians 6:10-20, where Paul describes the whole armor of God.  Each picture includes a Bible verse in Mongol bichig (traditional Mongolian script).

The 57 year-old artist, Tumur-Ochir Gombojav, attends church at Itgeliin Bambai (Shield of Faith) in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  Three years ago a friend of Tumur-Ochir's brought him to Itgeliin Bambai where he became a Christian, and as a result he now seeks to glorify God with his art.  Previously he attended art school in Mongolia from 1971-1975, and later after graduation attended the School of Fine Arts Academy in Saint Petersburg, Russia 1979-1986.

In an interview, Tumur-Ochir said that he gets his inspiration for his paintings from the Bible and from his pastor`s sermons at church. He believes that the Holy Spirit gives him the ideas, so he is just a person who performs but not the one who creates.  "I feel close to myself when I draw about my faith or Christianity, rather than drawing ordinary things like mountains, trees or about life."

Tumur-Ochir's paintings are now on display at the Union Bible Theological College in Ulaanbaatar.  A pastor who saw them on display there was so impressed that he commissioned Tumur-Ochir to paint a similar series of images for his church, which Tumur-Ochir is currently working on (they are very similar to the series shown here).

Historical and Cultural Background of the Paintings

Portrait of Chinggis Khaan
The paintings by Tumur-Ochir depict various Mongolian soldiers in (what I assume to be) traditional armor and dress.  Since Mongolia's emergence as a democracy in 1990 after 66 years of Communist rule, there has been tremendous growth in religious freedom (including Christianity) and a resurgence of pride in traditional Mongolian culture (for a BBC story about both topics, click here).  The single greatest symbol of this renewed pride in Mongolians' cultural heritage is Chinggis Khaan, or Genghis Khan as he's known in the west.  Tumur-Ochir's paintings capture this renewed cultural pride in Mongolia's heritage and history, as well as the growing impact of Christianity on its citizens.

Ariunaa reports,

Historically, there were Nestorian Christian warriors in the time of Chinggis Khaan, so I am surprised this theme has not been seen more often... Much better than the fluffy flowery "Christian" art– complete with a scrawny white Jesus in a dress– seen in Ulaanbaatar nowadays, most of it unfortunately imported.

I've written previously about the presence of Nestorian Christians in China, although they made inroads as far east as Korea.  The Nestorians' efforts resulted in the Christianization of some Mongolian tribes such as the Keraits around 1000 A.D., prior to the time of Chinggis Khaan (1162? – 1227).  After defeating the Kerait, Chinggis and his sons began to marry Nestorian Kerait princesses which resulted in a Nestorian influence over subsequent Mongol history.  Below is a succinct summary of the legacy of these Nestorian Christian Mongol women in the campaigns of Chinggis Khaan's descendents and their relations with Christian Europe, as written by blogger Tim O'Neill in his review of Philip Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died:

From the beginning, Christian Mongols played a prominent role in the empire of Genghis Khan, since the Keraits, Ongguds and Uyguyrs were all substantially Christianised and all were prominent in the new Mongol power.  Kublai Khan was renowned for his tolerance of Christians and many of them rose to prominence in his court and administration.  By the mid-Thirteenth Century many Asian Christians held out hopes that a Christianised Mongol Empire would crush Islam and unite with Christians in Europe.  Such hopes filtered west and formed the kernel of the persistent and long-lived rumours of the legendary central Asian Christian king "Prester John", who hovered like a mirage over much late Crusading ideals as the possible saviour of the kingdoms of Outremer who would ride under banners of the cross from the east and sweep away the armies of Islam. 
In May 1260, a Syrian painter
gave a new twist to the iconography
of the Exaltation of the Cross by
showing Constantine and Helena
with the features of Hulagu (a
grandson of Chinggis Khaan) and
his Christian wife Doquz Khatun.
This idea was not entirely fantasy.  Papal envoys to the Great Khans early in the century meant that both the Mongols and Europeans were well aware that they shared an enemy in Islam and several attempts were made to co-ordinate their wars against Muslim targets.  King Louis IX of France met two envoys from the Persian Khan Güyükin Cyprus in 1248 and in 1287 a Mongol embassy made it all the way to Paris to meet King Philip the Fair, Gascony to meet King Edward I and finally back via Rome to meet the newly elected Pope Nicholas IV.  In all of these cases the Mongol envoys were Nestorian Christians and the one who met the two kings and the pope was Rabban Bar Sauma, probably a Mongol and Turkic speaking Onggud whose journeys from Beijing to Paris read like the travels of Marco Polo in reverse.  But the dream of an alliance was never fulfilled and when the Kerait Christian Mongol general Kitbuqa was crushed in battle by the Mamluk Egyptians at Ain Jalut the dream of the end of Islam faded as well.

The Artwork Itself

So with all of that preliminary history out of the way, I'll begin with the first of Tumur-Ochir's ten paintings.  For the next several days, I will feature two or three of the paintings, accompanied by a corresponding image of Mongolian armor/warriors/etcetera for comparison.

Be Strong In the Lord and In His Mighty Power.

Mongolian warrior in full gear, c. 1900.

Mongolian robe with silk braiding decoration,
Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 A.D.)

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