Authentic Inculturation: The Oriental, Sino-Christian Altars of Dom Adelbert Gresnigt, OSB

Dom Adelbert Gresnigt, O.S.B., was a Dutch Benedictine monk who lived from 1877 until 1956. Dom Adelbert was a monk of the Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium who was trained as a painter and sculpture in the Beuronese school, having executed works in locations ranging from the Vatican (where he designed the crypt for Pope Pius XI in St. Peter's Basilica -- see below), North America and -- the focus of today's article -- China.

The tomb of Pius XI designed by Dom Adelbert

Dom Adelbert was resident in China for five years between 1927-1932 during a time when the Holy See was focusing more on the concept of inculturation or what was then referred to as "localization" or "indigenization" -- i.e. adapting the Christian idiom to localized, cultural vernaculars and influences while still retaining core Christian roots and messages. Attending the Catholic University of Peking, Dom Adelbert studied Chinese architecture as part of this process and would design various Catholic structures -- some of which were built, others which weren't such as a proposed design for the cathedral for Haimen. After his time in China, Dom Adelbert taught a course on "Christian Art in the Mission Countries" at the Pontifical College Urbano de Propaganda Fide between 1940-1948 before having his career in this regard cut short by a stroke that he would suffer from in 1949. 

Dom Adelbert Gresnigt, O.S.B. in China

Dom Adelbert was tasked by the then Apostolic Delegate of China, Archbishop Celso Constantini (+1958), with shifting the Catholic architectural and artistic approach in the region from nineteenth century gothic revivalism to the development of a true Sino-Christian style; a task he felt particularly important in terms of Catholic outreach to the native Chinese population.

As part of this task, Dom Adelbert designed various buildings, inside and out, but what I in particular wanted to draw attention to today is less his overarching architectural work and instead focus on some of his specific designs for altars and altarpieces done in an oriental or Sino-Christian style. 

These altars reflect what I would consider an authentic approach to inculturation in liturgical art; inculturation not as manifest by the absence or significant diminution of recognizable Christian meaning and symbolism, but rather an approach characterized by taking the essential Christian substance and core schema and merging it and layering it with stylistic influences taken from the local cultural vernacular in a way that creates a harmonious whole.  In many ways, there is a clear parallel to be found here between authentic approaches to inculturation in liturgical art and the authentic approach taken toward modernity that we can find in "Other Modern" work. There too it is about a modernity that does not come at the expense of the Christian tradition. 

Here then are three altars by Dom Adelbert that fall into this precise approach. Each of the three altars comes in one of the more popular forms since the time of the Council of Trent, the Exposition Throne altar which combines the altar, gradines, central tabernacle and an exposition throne space used alternately for an altar cross or for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament -- a style particularly popular in the north of Italy and parts of Southern France.  What you will see in each of the examples is that the basic form is recognizably and traditionally Christian, even 'Tridentine," as are the symbols, however the stylistic details and ornament that are layered over top of these are very clearly rooted in the local cultural and artistic vernacular of the Chinese and their historic architecture.  

Adelbert Gresnigt. No date. Société des Auxiliaires des Missions (SAM) China Photograph Collection, Whitworth University Library, Spokane.

Adelbert Gresnigt. No date. Société des Auxiliaires des Missions (SAM) China Photograph Collection, Whitworth University Library, Spokane.

As I have commented before, while particular styles aren't going to be everyone's own particular personal tastes and preferences of course, this is aside from the point.  The point is that it would indeed appeal and speak to many who are rooted within this particular cultural tradition and, more importantly, it is a noble and dignified expression that is certainly not only compatible with the sacred liturgy of the Catholic tradition, it is also dignified and worthy of divine worship.

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