The Mysterious Madonna and Child Scroll

This post was written by Jamie Kelly, Head of Anthropological Collections and Anthropology Collections Manager, Lisa Nizolek, Cyrus Tang Hall of China Postdoctoral Fellow, and Cassie Pontone, Assistant Collections Manager. 

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Chinese Madonna and Child Scroll
© The Field Museum, A114604_02d, photographer John Weinstein.

Often referred to as “The Madonna Scroll,” this painting of mother and child from China presents quite a mystery. While some scholars believe the piece dates back to the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644), others propose an 18th-century date. Researchers also debate what, exactly, is depicted in the painting. Some argue the image references the well-known Byzantine icon Salus Populi Romani, copies of which may have been brought to China by European Jesuit missionaries as early as the late 16th century. Other scholars theorize the scroll is a representation of the Christian image of the Madonna and Child. Alternative hypotheses are that the painting represents the East Asian bodhisattva Guanyin, commonly referred to as the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and not the Christian Madonna—or that it may be a combination of the two female figures.

Even the artist is a bit of a riddle. Field Museum curator Berthold Laufer purchased the scroll between 1908 and 1910 from a prominent family in Singanfu (modern-day Xi’an), China, who claimed ownership for five or six generations. Although the painting appears to bear the mark of the famed artist Tang Yin (AD 1470-1523), there is doubt regarding the mark’s authenticity. Laufer believed the stamp was forged, attributing its actual creator to a later unknown artist from the 17th century, when Jesuit missionaries were in China. This forgery would have protected the painting’s owners from religious persecution while Christianity was suppressed in China. Conversely, some scholars now believe that the stamp is, in fact, authentic and a testament to earlier missionaries in China.

The Field Museum’s China Collection has over 400 scroll paintings. This particular scroll was conserved and remounted in 2007.

To see and learn about scroll paintings, visit the Cyrus Tang Hall of China.