Thursday, July 16, 2009

Architectural recrossings

Jiuquan and Jiayuguan, as cities in the heavily Muslim Gansu province, have their own mosques, many of which show signs of recent restoration and rebuilding; but what I found more unexpected was the presence of equally large and prominent Christian churches, with enormous crosses on their roofs. I don’t know the history of Western Christianity in Gansu, although it may well be that, as elsewhere in China, pockets of Western-style Christian belief have survived from the missionary movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (There is of course a separate history, starting in the eighth century, of Syriac Christianity in the Hexi corridor; but that’s another matter.) What was striking about both the mosques and the churches was not only their newness, which reflects China’s recent building boom, but their architectural similarities. Both were built in a modern style dominated by the distinctive and repeated use of pointed arches. In the case of the churches, this was a clear reference to the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival style favored by the Anglo-American missionaries who probably established the current Christian communities in Gansu. But those nineteenth-century churches got their pointed arches, in the end, from the same Arabic architectural tradition that informs the style of the mosques. The pointed arch, introduced into the Gothic architecture of medieval Europe, is thought to have been borrowed from Islamic architecture of the Near East and Andalusian Spain; and it is this medieval style that informed so many nineteenth-century churches around the world. In western China, the Anglo-American pointed arch is reunited with its distant cousin, both descendants of the same early Near Eastern ancestor.


Tommy said...

I cannot claim a professional expertise, as you certainly can, but I am not comfortable with the (certainly common) assumption of an Islamic source for the pointed arch. I've thought on this and I'm not comfortable with that explanation. By the pricking of my thumbs, say.

SEB said...

Honestly, I think it's pretty solid, actually. But we can argue about it later if you want.

Tommy said...

We can probably find more interesting things to talk about. It's an element that is just so integrated to that order that I cannot feel a relationship beyond the simple fact of pointing.