Bulletin van de Koninklijke Nederlandse Oudheidkundige Bond vol:113 issue:2 pages:89-107
Dom Adelbert Gresnigt (1877-1956) was a Dutch Benedictine monk and artist from the Belgian abbey of Maredsous. Educated as a painter and a sculptor at the abbey art school of Beuron in Germany, he worked in Italy, Brazil, the United States, China, and the Vatican. This article focuses on the five years Gresnigt spent in China (March 1927 – January 1932), with the papal mission to create a “Sino-Christian” architectural style that would contribute to the new indigenization policy of the Holy See. Based both on unexplored archives and fieldwork, this article reconstructs the chronology of Gresnigt’s works in China and analyses his major buildings in the perspective of the religious and architectural contexts.
China faced politic and social challenges since the rise of the Republic (1912) that threatened Christian evangelisation. Therefore, popes Benedict XV and Pius XI promoted ‘indigenization’ (or ‘inculturation’, ‘localization’): the western missionaries should no more serve their national interest but these of the universal Church and work to the development of local churches, with native priests and bishops. In 1922 Rome sent an apostolic delegate to China, archbishop Celso Costantini, who implemented indigenization despite the opposition of many conservative missionaries. He was convinced of the crucial role of art and architecture and considered urgent to create a specific Sino-Christian style and stop building western gothic churches. Because the Catholics were in competition with the Protestant missions in the field of high education, the first new buildings were educational buildings for Chinese priests and Catholic elite. Costantini commissioned Gresnigt with this task.
Gresnigt integrated the American Benedictine community of the Catholic University of Peking, received a Chinese name (Ge Li-si, 葛利斯), and spent the year 1927 to study ancient Chinese architecture. In 1929-31 he designed and built four important educational buildings: the seminary of the Disciples of the Lord at Xuanhua (Hebei province), the regional seminaries of Kaifeng (Henan province) and Aberdeen (Hong Kong), and the Catholic University of Peking (Beijing), the latter being Gresnigt’s masterpiece. The world economical crisis interrupted the financing of further works. Gresnigt’s designs for the cathedral of Haimen (Jiangsu province) and St. Teresa in Kowloon (Hong Kong) were not built.
The article examines the meaning and the specificity of Gresnigt’s work in the context of both the architectural evolution of China in the 1920s and the competition between Catholics and Protestants. The originality of his buildings is less their style than their design. The ‘Chinese Renaissance’ or ‘adaptive style’ was used since the late 1910’s for Chinese official buildings and Protestant educational buildings, the most famous of which being the works of the American architect Henry K. Murphy. Gresnigt succeeded developing a new design that referred to monastic, rational and introverted citadel looking buildings, which were totally different from protestant university halls around open courtyards. At last the article examines Gresnigt’s posterity. Due to the economical crisis and the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), the Sino-Christian style did not develop further in the 1930s, except for liturgical furniture and paintings. After 1932, Gresnigt returned to Europe and worked as a painter and sculptor: he would not be involved any longer in architectural design and China projects.