Martino Martini (1614 – 1661), an Italian Jesuit missionary in China

Michaelina Wautier
c.1617 - 1689

Martino Martini (1614 – 1661), an Italian Jesuit missionary in China

Painted 1654

Oil on canvas: 27 ¼ x 23 1/8 in. (69.5 x 59 cm.)


Auction, Dobiaschofsky, Bern, 18 – 19 October 1973, Lot 665, (incorrectly identified as ‘Johannes Hus’);

Private collection, Switzerland, until 2016;

Koller Auction House, Zurich, 23 March 2016, lot 3057.


K. Van der Stighelen, ‘Prima inter pares. Over de voorkeur van aartshertog Leopold-Wilhelm voor Michaelina Woutiers (c.1620 – 1682)’, in: H. Vlieghe & K. Van der Stighelen, (ed.): Sponsors of the Past. Flemish Art and Patronage 1550 – 1700, pp. 91-116, fig. 24 & p. 108.

Signed and dated upper left: ‘Michaelina Wautier fecit 1654;’

and an inscription in Chinese upper right: ‘Wei Kuang Guo’ (sitter’s name)


This remarkable painting is an extraordinary, indeed unique, portrait of the Italian Jesuit missionary Martino Martini, who settled in 1643 in the Chinese city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. It was painted in 1654 by the most exceptional woman artist of her day, Flemish-born Michaelina Wautier, when Martini was most likely passing through the Archducal court at Brussels, en route from China to Rome where he would later arrive in the spring of 1655 to present on behalf of the Chinese Mission Superior. Pivotally, Wautier depicts Martini in Manchu costume, and the portrait bears his name in a Chinese inscription. This was an important statement of his political position in Jesuit missionary practice – a reference to his support of an ‘inculturated’ approach to Christian indoctrination.


Michaelina Wautier was exceptional as a female artist but also in that she tried her hand at all genres, excelling at portrait, history, still life, and everyday scenes. Her portraits display a power of observation that is reminiscent of the great Baroque painters of her day, certainly on a par with if not even more astonishing than her Italian counterpart, Artemisia Gentileschi. Wautier’s oeuvre today consists of around twenty-nine paintings including the present, newly ascribed portrait, and one drawing. This portrait is unique as a study of an older, Jesuit missionary, with the added allure of its unusual Oriental connection.


Undoubtedly painted from life, Martino Martini is closely cropped to enhance his immediacy. He does not face the spectator, instead concentrating on something beyond the picture frame. Lost deep in thought, he solicits a general feeling of melancholy contemplation – which Wautier has brilliantly conceived with the limpid white highlights to his eyes. Wautier has observed this with what could be considered a particularly female sensibility. In turn, the padded blue silk of Martini’s oriental costume adds physical weight to his presence that belies the ethereal quality of his expression. Martini’s red fur-lined cap adds to his exoticism, and the fluid rendering of his beard is astonishing. Wautier’s brushwork varies from subtle touches to more vigorous strokes, rendering the different textures of skin, drapery and hair with great confidence.


Martino Martini, cartographer, historian and Jesuit missionary, was born in Trento, becoming a Jesuit in 1631 and studying Classics and Philosophy at the Roman College in Rome (1634 – 1637). From 1637 – 1639 he studied theology in Lisbon, where he was ordained a priest. His request to travel as a missionary to China had been granted as early as 1637, but he did not set out for China until 1640, arriving in Portuguese Macau in 1642, where he studied Chinese before continuing his travels. In 1643 he settled in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, from where he travelled regularly to compile geographic data on the Chinese Empire. At that time the Ming capital of Beijing fell to rebel control, and the last legitimate Ming Emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor, hanged himself. According to Martini’s own writings which appeared in some editions of his De bello tartarico, the Jesuit was able to switch his allegiance to China's new Qing Dynasty with relative ease. Martini had his head shaved in the Manchu way, and his Chinese dress and hat replaced with Manchu-style, as seen in the present portrait. Thus the Manchus allowed him to return to his Hangzhou church, and provided him and the Hangzhou Christian community with necessary protection.


In 1651 Martini left China for Rome as the Delegate of the Chinese Mission Superior. He took advantage of the long, adventurous voyage (going first to the Philippines, from thence on a Dutch privateer to Bergen, Norway, which he reached on 31 August 1653, and then to Amsterdam. He met with printers in Antwerp, Vienna and Munich to submit historical and cartographic data on China, and the works printed made him famous. He must have met with and commissioned Wautier to paint his portrait around this time, when passing through the Archducal court at Brussels, presumably in 1654. Indeed, Wautier was very likely recommended to Martini as a portraitist by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, whom he had met in Antwerp earlier that year. Wautier was one of the Archduke’s favourite painters, owning no less than four paintings by her (now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The inventory of his collection, drawn up in Vienna in 1659, today provides the most important contemporary source of information about her works, and notably Wautier was the only woman painter represented in his outstanding collection. From this one can assume she must also have been held in high regard in the context of the court of Archduke Albrecht and Archduchess Isabella at Brussels.


Neither is the importance of the commission for Martino Martini to be underestimated. His report to Rome hung in the balance for the Chinese Jesuit missionaries. In the spring of 1655 he finally reached Rome where he presented a detailed communication from the Chinese Jesuit missionaries in defence of their ‘inculturated’ approach to indoctrination. Their belief in allowing the so-called ‘Chinese Rites’ – veneration of ancestors, and other practices to new Chinese Christians was a pivotal and contentious doctrine. In Wautier’s powerful portrait, Martini’s decision to be shown in Manchu dress was no coincidence: it was an important statement of his political position in Jesuit missionary practice – his support of a degree of cultural appropriation and tolerance.


Discussions and debates in Rome took place for five months, at the end of which the church issued a decree in favour of the Jesuits on 23 March 1656 –  no small accomplishment on Martini’s part. In 1658, after a most difficult journey, he was back in China with the favourable result. He was again involved in pastoral and missionary activities in the Hangzhou area where he built a three-naves church that was considered to be one of the most beautiful of the country 1659 – 1661. He never lived to see its completion, dying of cholera in 1661. Martini is now most famous for his cartography of China, from which source the first European maps of the country were engraved. He is acclaimed as the father of Chinese geographical science, and the first to study the history and geography of China with rigorous scientific objectivity.


Martino Martini’s tomb in the churchyard at Hangzhou


Wautier was probably born in Mons, southwest of Brussels. Her father was engaged as secretary to the Viceroy of Naples, but died shortly after Michaelina’s birth. There is no proof that she lived anywhere other than Mons in her early years, and nothing is known of her training. Her older brother, Charles Wautier (1609 – 1703) was also an artist, and it is plausible that her career was made possible by his success. In 1643 they resided together in Brussels – the year of her earliest dated work. Although Charles was some nine years older than Michaelina, it is important to note that nonetheless his dated works are considerably later, between 1652 – 1668.


Prof. Van der Stighelen has noted that Michaelina’s style shows little evidence of the influence of the contemporary masters of the ‘Flemish Baroque’, but more poignantly displays a French influence, specifically of Simon Vouet (1590 – 1649) and Philippe de Champaigne (1602 – 1674). She also notes the possible influence on Wautier of Michael Sweerts (1618 – 1664), her direct contemporary. In 1646 Sweerts was in Italy, but he is recorded as having earlier established an ‘accademie van die teeckeninge naer het leven’ (life drawing academy) in Brussels. Michaelina certainly produced male nudes from life, while her portraits, cloaked in diffuse light and sitters clothed in garments hung in broad folds, are comparable to those of Sweerts. 

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