The policy of inculturation promoted by Pope Benedict XV in 1919 and implemented from 1922 in Republican China and Hong Kong by Archbishop Celso Costantini aimed to sinicise the Catholic mission and promote a Chinese Catholic church. Archbishop Costantini considered sinicising art and architecture a priority. Church architecture, as the most tangible expression of religion and identity in the public space, should express Chinese Christianity rather than Christianity imported by missionaries.
This lecture examines the paradigm shift of Catholic architecture in China and Hong Kong, from Western traditional models to Chinese-looking buildings, including modern structures in reinforced concrete. In 1926, the Vatican commissioned Father Adelbert Gresnigt, a Benedictine monk and artist, to define the “Sino-Christian style”. He designed several churches and educational buildings, his masterpieces being the Catholic University of Peking and the Regional Seminary of Hong Kong (present Holy Trinity Seminary at Aberdeen). This new style not only expressed Catholic Chineseness and modernity, but had to be different from the Protestants’ sinicised architecture. A debate, however, arose within the Catholic Church, many conservative missionaries arguing against the Sino-Christian style by referring to the preference of the Chinese Catholics for Western styles. An example of this debate happened in 1930 when St. Teresa’s Church Kowloon was designed.
From the early 1930s on, both the world economic crisis and growing political instability in China and Europe slowed down the architectural projects and redefined priorities. Contrary to architecture, the sinicisation of Christian art by Chinese artists and Western missionaries flourished until the 1940s.
Dr. Thomas Coomans (PhD in art history and archaeology) is Associate Professor at the University of Leuven, Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation, and Adjunct Assistant Professor at School of Architecture of The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His teachings include architectural history, theory and history of conservation. Combining research in western archives and fieldwork in
China, his present research and publications focus on the evolution of Christian church architecture in China from 1840 to 1950.