3: Johann Adam Schall


Johann Adam Schall Von Bell, from Athanasius Kircher, China Illustrata, 1667 (Amsterdam), 12 x 8 inches, engraving.

This print from 1667 depicts the German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall Von Bell (1592-1666) and is one of many illustrations from China Illustrata, written by Athanasius Kircher. The print shows Adam Schall in contemporary Chinese dress surrounded by astronomical and mathematical tools signifying his place in the Chinese court. Furthermore, it represents the strategies that the Jesuits found necessary in gaining influence in Chinese society.

The Jesuits first arrived in China in 1552, with Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) paving the way for the order’s future success in the region. Arriving in China in 1582, Ricci became a close friend of the Confucian scholar Qu Taisu. Ricci taught him about mathematics and in return he received an introduction into the circle of the mandarins, and soon began to dress like a Chinese scholar. Ricci even adopted a Chinese name. In 1601 Ricci entered Beijing and, although he was a foreigner, was given permission to stay. After this he never left and he dedicated his life to introducing the Chinese to Christianity.[1]

Johann Adam Schall followed in Ricci’s footsteps. Born to a prosperous family in Cologne, Germany in 1592,  he renounced his prosperity and became a Jesuit in Rome. [2] In 1618 Schall completed his studies and ordination, soon after he wrote to petition the Jesuit General to be assigned to the Jesuit mission in China.[3] After his petition was granted Shall began studying mathematics, something he knew to be vital in gaining Chinese trust.[4] Schall arrived at the Portuguese settlement of Macao in 1619 and  spent the next three years studying Chinese language and culture. [5] Following Ricci’s strategies, Shall adopted Chinese dress as well as a Chinese name, T’ang Jo-wang.[6] In 1623 Schall was allowed to enter China and continue onto Peking where he would begin his mission.[7]

After the death of the German Jesuit astronomer, Terrenz, in 1630, Schall moved to become the Head of Mathematics and Astronomy Bureau in Peking.[8] During his time with the bureau Schall was able to predict numerous solar and lunar eclipses, a skill that gained him fame within the court.[9]  His ability to assimilate into Chinese culture, in language, dress, and intellectual ideas, contributed to him keeping his position as Head Astronomer in China, even after the fall of the Ming Dynasty.[10] During the rise of what became the Qing Dynasty, Schall was commissioned to create a new calendar, in which he predicted an eclipse of the sun on September 1, 1664.  After this event, he gained the position of Head of the Bureau of the Calendar in China.[11]  Schall became the first Jesuit to be treated as a member of the Chinese court, and furthermore, a member of Chinese society.[12] This status gave all Jesuit missionaries sanctuary under Chinese rule, a status the Jesuits had never had in China.[13] However, due to the civil unrest and the Chinese Dynasties undergoing changes once again, Schall found himself imprisoned, along with his team of Jesuits, in 1665.[14] In 1666 Schall died while in prison, and with his death came another period of Jesuit persecution in China.[15]

The print itself uses instruments and symbols to represent Adam Schall as an astronomer and a Confucian scholar.  Within the foreground the artist incorporated a celestial globe and to the left of the globe, in Schall’s hand, is an astrolabe, an object that is used to take astronomical measurements.  On the table is another globe with an unidentifiable ribbon wrapped around it, possibly representing an ecliptic, although its use is unknown.  Next to the globe, and in Schall’s other hand, are two protractors, and under the globe is a triangle, all instruments which are used for measuring angles. There are also two maps featured in this image; the first one on the table simply represents China.  The second map, on the wall, represents the solar path, and the ecliptic projected onto the Earth’s globe.  Directly next to the map is a Chinese sextant, an instrument used for measuring distances between objects and for taking altitudes in navigation.[16]

Schall’s attire is what makes him stand out as both a Confucian scholar and as a true member of the Qing Dynasty. He is dressed in the silk robes of a Qing mandarin of the Department of Astronomy and of the Sino-Tartar King.  The white crane on his chest and the red button on his headdress indicate his imperially authorized rank within the Qing Dynasty.[17] As such, the image shows to European readers both the status that Schall achieved at this foreign court and the Chinese interest in European science in general.

In addition to seeing this print as a record of Jesuit strategies at the Chinese court, this imagefrom Athanasius Kircher’s book, China Illustrata, must also be understood from the point of view of the author himself. Kircher (1602-1680) was a German Jesuit who studied and wrote about many diverse subjects such as natural history, geography, linguistics, and ancient and Biblical history. Kircher was obsessed with finding the origins of everything, especially language and religion, basing his understanding of the world on the evidence he found in the Old Testament and in ancient Greek texts. Kircher believed the world’s history started with Noah and his family.[18] Thus he concluded that Egyptian idolatry was the source of all religion, therefore leading to his universal vision of Christianity and global history. As Jesuit missionaries began returning from the Far East, Kircher began utilizing this vision and attempted to understand foreign religion and culture through his universalizing lens.[19] His China Illustrata was part of the broad intellectual project, China Monumentis.[20] This book was a compilation of images that covered a broad range of oriental subject matter such as language, geography, geology, botany, zoology and religion.[21]

Through a print such as the one exhibited both the virtues and knowledge of a Jesuit such as Adam Schall are exemplified and Jesuit evangelization strategies in the East are shown. At the same time, the print also serves as a record of how the East was perceived. The print in Kircher’s book works to further the idea of  “Universal Christianity”, thus legitimizing the place of Jesuits in foreign territories.

Connar Masotti and Madeline Galler


[1]  Material in this paragraph from Joseph Hsing-san Shih, “Matteo Ricci.” (Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed May01, 2016. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Matteo-Ricci.)

[2] Rachel Attwater and John Duhr,  Adam Schall: A Jesuit at the Court of China, 1592-1666 (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Pub., 1963), i.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., x.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., xi.

[8] Andrew Ross, A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994) ,160.

[9] Ibid., 165.

[10] Ibid., 167

[11] Ibid., 169.

[12] Ibid., 170.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 171.

[15] Ibid., 172.

[16] Inge Heyer, Personal communication, April 7, 2016

[17] Ross, 172

[18] Joscelyn Godwin, Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.), 15.

[19]Dawn Odell,  “Creaturely Invented Letters and Dead Chinese Idols,” in The Idol in the Age of Art: Objects, Devotions and the Early Modern World, eds. Michael Wayne Cole and Rebecca Zorach (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub., 2009), 278.

[20] Ibid., 250.

[21] Ibid.