The Notre Dame Cathedral graces Point Zero in Paris. "Paris 0 km" as the French say of the spot marking the very heart of the nation's culture and Catholicism.
The ancient gothic-style Cathedral famed as the setting for Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" is now also ground zero for thousands of Chinese who flow through its grand entrance to gaze upon a single painting.
This extraordinary new painting, referred to as "The Chinese Madonna" and officially titled, The Holy Mother and Her Son (Sainte Mere et Son Fils) by the painter Yin Xin, is drawing tens of thousands Chinese daily.
"This is like a gift from God," an animated Yin is the first to admit. "I never expected that one of my paintings would be hanging in the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris."
In fact, not just one, but two of his paintings, the other titled "Saint Paul Chen," hang in their very own chapel, Chapelle de la Sainte-Enfance in Paris' Notre Dame.
The chapel, and Xin's masterpieces, received benediction from Monsignor Michel Aupetit on May 27 this year in a formal ceremony held at the Cathedral.
These two paintings, each classical compositions on a chiaroscuro background by the dignified and affable 60-year-old Chinese-born Yin, once described by the international art press as a Parisian "dandy," are also accompanied by two calligraphic panels.
These duilian by Xin, beautifully illustrated with burnt gold Chinese calligraphy, hang on either side of Saint Paul Chen's reliquary.
The calligraphy speaks of faith and hope and translates into English as: "The immensity of God's grace floods into the universe. His infinite love fulfills man's expectations."
Pointing to his calligraphic panels hanging just to the right of his Chinese Virgin, who wears a red veil and is surrounded by cherubs from the celestial empire, he explains: "In Chinese art tradition, calligraphy is mixed with oil painting and these are accompanied by music. Art is never isolated as just painting."
Red is the color of good luck in Chinese culture, he notes: "At weddings, for example, people wear red."
His bold color choice, a stark divergence from the traditional "virgin blue" of Mary, is as striking as is the young, beatific, unmistakably Asian face that is gazing down at her Holy Son from whom God's light illuminates not just her world, but also the whole of the church.
As you walk through the pews to the other side of this otherwise dimly lit ancient church, you see clearly this beam of luminous light emanates from the painting itself.
It was his intense passion for, and interest in, art that drove Xin as a young man to leave Xinjiang province's Gobi Desert where he had studied printmaking while growing up under Communist Party rule during the Cultural Revolution. His father had been an officer in Chiang Kai-shek's republican army and during Mao's Cultural Revolution, his family were sent to colonize this little inhabited region of China.
As a young man, Yin first risked a new life in Melbourne, Australia, where he furthered his studies in printmaking.
"When you're studying art, you always want to come to Europe because of its great art history," reasons Xin, who arrived in France in 1990.
His encounter at the Louvre with Georges de la Tour's painting from 1640, Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, gave him goosebumps. He recalls the life-changing moment clearly: "I saw, for the first time, with my own eyes, that a painter can impart a soul to a work of art. For me, painting was and is so much more than technique."
And that was when he first realized that as an artist, he, too, had this latent ability to transmit life into his art.
"In China we learn only technique in art," he explains. "That is the system in China. You have to keep in mind, Chinese oil painting history is only about 100 years old. Chinese art was traditionally on rice paper."
He goes on to say the subjects of faith he saw so frequently in the European masterpieces he viewed at the Louvre and other fine museums also made him question this Western culture of faith.
"Why do people have faith to believe in God?" he began asking himself.
"We as Communists don't believe in God," he underscores, when describing his upbringing in the farthest reaches of China.
Though Yin Xin today is neither Communist nor Catholic, he says being commissioned to paint "The Holy Mother and Her Son" has indeed been "something of a spiritual transformation for me."
He explains, "The universality of mother love is undeniable. The theme of maternal love is universally unifying – Catholic, Buddhist, Communist. We all understand a mother's love for her child."
France does have a Chinese Catholic community that numbers at about 3,000 strong, with their own church in Paris' Chinatown.
But millions of Chinese tourists have flooded European capitals. Notre Dame does not keep figures of foreign nationals who enter its sanctuary, but the nearby Louvre museum estimates some 800,000 Chinese tourists visit each year. Many of these same Chinese, while not adherents to Christianity, are intrigued by their very own Madonna.
The overall numbers for China’s Catholic community are estimated by the Catholic Church to be over 10 million. But accurate tallies are difficult because China's formal Catholic Church is supervised by Beijing, and it remains independent of Rome.
"One of the most difficult things for me to contend with in regards to this extraordinary honor that my paintings have been given by the Catholic Church, being hung in perpetuity in the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, is that I cannot easily share this joy with my friends and family back in China," confides Xin.
Overt gestures of religious worship, and admiration of religiously themed subjects, are not looked upon favorably by authorities in his home country, he explains.
Yin says the story of the Chinese Madonna began when another painting, the Chinese Venus, was featured at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in March 2016 as part of the Botticelli Reimagined exhibition. The long flowing black hair and exaggerated epicanthic eyes of his Chinese Venus 2009 painting, 'Venus, after Boticelli' gained him considerable attention and the art world and collectors started taking more notice.
"I am really not part of this whole art world – that is why I feel like life is playing a joke on me, but in a very positive way," he says with a smile, as he explains how his The Holy Mother and Her Son came to be one of the world's most viewed paintings, with its very own chapel, in France's most famous church.
In fact, Yin's paintings were commissioned by the church itself. In Paris' Saint-Germain des Prés, the historic left bank neighborhood of artists and writers where Yin lives, one of his neighbors happens to head the cultural department at Notre Dame.
She attended one of his art salons and was instantly moved by Xin's series of paintings entitled Metamorphoses. A commission by Notre Dame soon followed.
Xin's Metamorphoses is an extraordinary re-imagining of Western art traditions and icons into a distinctly Chinese vision.
He scours Paris to find old paintings, by unknown or anonymous artists, and then transforms them by painting over the canvas so the classic theme may remain the same, but the painting becomes altogether his own, and altogether something seen from Chinese eyes.
For example, he transformed Jesus and His disciples at the Last Supper, to a gathering of Chinese women.
And now he has transformed the Virgin Mary into Our Lady of China.
It would be difficult to completely deny traces of the divine threading throughout the account of how Xin's paintings, particularly his Holy Mother and Her Son, came to be hung in the Cathedral.
At a time when state control of religious worship in China is escalating, and a simultaneous trend is emerging of younger, urban females declaring they intend to remain childless, it is as if this painting is speaking through its imagery, beckoning from some collective consciousness. Xin's captivating art may help those who visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame to locate their own spiritual Point Zero.
Journalist and author Paige Donner is the founder of ParisFoodAndWine. She lives in Paris.
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