Interest in different cultures, and more importantly for the Vatican, their diverse religions, is not a recent development. Ever since Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba and Hispanoia (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), in 1492, Europeans have “assumed a posture of human and cultural superiority” over peoples like the Indians, indulging in barbarity in the name of civilization and Christianity. However, not all in the renaissance and early modern periods viewed different cultures in such a condescending way. Two centuries after Columbus, and writing in a spirit well ahead of his time, the French essayist Michel de Montaigne sounded a multicultural note, pointing out that “barbarism” means anything somebody is not accustomed to, not unbridled savagery. Montaigne’s source for his anthropological discussion of tribes on the coast of Brazil was Girolamo Belzoni whose History of the New World (1565) detailed the horrifying treatment meted out to the natives by the Conquistadors in that region.
Yet, Montaigne’s famous essay on the cannibals has nothing to do with the “noble savage.” Though these people were cruel, equally so were the Europeans who colonised their lands. After Columbus, religious orders like the Jesuits and the Franciscans started sending out missions to North America in the hope of converting the indigenous people to Christianity. The first Jesuit mission to North America (one of four) dates from 1609 and no doubt from studying terrifying paintings of baroque martyrdoms, the monks may have had some idea of what awaited them on the shores of the New World. The fate of some theological advisers seeking to convert non-Christian cultures in North America was to be killed and eaten.. Further north, In Canada, the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeu, along with other colleagues, was martyred in this way. Mocking the missionaries and Christianity, the Iroquois, “baptized” him with boiling water, and then killed Brébeu and his companions, earning the group the name of the North American Martyrs.
The Jesuits also launched a programme of missions to China and the Far East, spearheaded by St Francis Xavier in 1562, though Xavier never reached mainline China dying instead on the island of Shangchuan. It’s been calculated that from Xavier’s time up to 1800 a total of 920 Jesuit missionaries participated in the China mission. Poussin even painted the saint, a work commissioned in 1638 by Sublet de Noyers, in Paris and installed in spring 1642 on the high altar of a newly built church for Jesuit noviciates. It shows a scene from the life of St Francis Xavier, one of the joint founders of the Jesuit Order, who during his mission in Japan brought a dead girl back to life. Summoned by the prayers of the saint, Christ appears in the company of angels and restores the deceased to the living. The painting offered Poussin the opportunity to measure himself against his arch rival Vouet, who - along with Poussin's friend Jacques Stella - had been commissioned to produce a work for one of the side altars. Poussin was not entirely happy, however, with the circumstances under which his altarpiece arose: it was the largest canvas he ever executed in terms of dimensions, and although he considered its composition a success he was obliged to complete it in a great rush. It has to be said that it’s not one of his greatest accomplishments!
1. John Vanderlyn, Columbus Landing at Guanahani, 1492, 1837-47, Oil on canvas, 365 x 548 cm, Rotunda, US Capitol, Washington
2. Illustration from chapters 8, 14 and 15 of Jean de Léry’s s History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Also Called America. 1578, wood engravings.
3. Unknown engraver, Francis Xavier (left), Ignatius of Loyola (right) and Christ at the upper center. Below: Matteo Ricci (right) and Johann Adam Schall von Bell (left), all in dialogue towards the evangelization of China.
4. Poussin, The Miracle of St Francis Xavier, 1641-42, Oil on canvas, 444 x 234 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.
 On Columbus and the “clash of cultures”, see Alvin M. Josephy, Jr, 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians, (New York, 1994), 114-153.
 Montaigne, “On the Cannibals.”