The story appears on

Page A6-7

March 11, 2017

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Grand Gothic cathedral restored to former glory

IN 1945, renowned architect Liang Sicheng (1901-72) was commissioned by the Kuomintang government to identify architecture worthy of preservation in China’s warring localities. In Shanghai, he picked Zikawei’s (Xujiahui’s old name) St Ignatius Cathedral and Observatory, the Longhua Pagoda and three ancient Chinese gardens.

Thanks to his list, the grand cathedral still stands in Xujiahui and will reopen to the public this summer following a massive restoration.

“Covering an area of 2,670 square meters, it is the largest and tallest cathedral in Shanghai and was once the most magnificent Catholic church in the Far East,” says Zhou Jin, an expert on Shanghai Christian architecture and author of “Shanghai Church.”

“In its prime, the cathedral resided at the center of over 20 Christian institutes in Xujiahui, which commanded all the parishes in southeast China and was aptly called the ‘Vatican in the Far East’.”

According to the 1933 book “Zikawei in History,” the old cathedral was designed by Spanish priest Joannes Ferrer in 1851. It had the appearance of a Greek temple incorporated with characteristics of residential buildings in southeast China. A grand-new cathedral was erected in 1910 to accommodate a growing number of Christians.

“The new cathedral was built with contributions from wealthy Chinese Christians in Jiangnan (regions south of the Yangtze River). They shipped stones and granite from Suzhou with their own boats for the construction work. Therefore it took only five to six years to complete such a grand church,” says Fudan University professor Li Tiangang.

“So Xujiahui is truly a place where Chinese and Western cultures mixed and mingled,” he adds.

According to a North China Herald report from 1910, the “handsome building” was designed by British architect W. M. Dowdall, who spent 12 months on the design. As one of the few member of the Royal Institute of British Architects in Shanghai, Dowdall also designed the Union Church on the Bund.

“The design is in the early English Gothic style inclining toward Medieval French. The structure is principally of brick with door jambs and arches of granite, mouldings, strings and dressings of sandstone and red brick facings. The building has two towers with spires, two tower porches, narthex, nave, two aisles, eleven side chapels, stair to gallery and triforium ...” the report notes.

Just as described a century ago, the cathedral today features double bell towers, a Latin cross plan, and a main hall large enough to hold an audience of 2,500.

Two rows of arcade columns divide the interior into the three-story-high central hall and the side corridors. Natural light penetrates through windows near the ceiling. At the top is a quadripartite vault with rib-supported pointed arches.

The nave is graced by 64 columns, each composed of 10 smaller columns carved from fine marble quarried in Suzhou. Expert Zhou says this was a new style in its time, and was followed in the design of many later churches.

“Most sacred sculptures and stained glass in the church were made in Zikawei by the Tousewe Orphanage. St Ignatius Cathedral boasts a style of furnishing that is more elegant and elaborate than most modern churches of Shanghai,” he adds.

Though listed by Liang as structure for preservation, the church suffered during the turbulent years of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). The tops of the two bell towers and the cross, the stained glass were all demolished.

The cathedral was later used as warehouse space for a fruit company and fell into disrepair. It was returned to the Christian society in 1979 and the towers were restored in 1980. The cathedral was featured in the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film “Empire of the Sun,” although it is not the cathedral in the original book by J. G. Ballard, who attended school at the Anglican Holy Trinity Church near the Bund.

Painstaking repairs

The cathedral has been a popular tourist site since it opened to the public as the centerpiece of 4A Xujiahui Origin in 2012. Now it’s going through another difficult restoration, which started in 2015 to repair a big crack in the façade and potential structural danger caused by Metro Line 11.

However, the cathedral left few old photos and blueprints for restoration. Fortunately architect Chen Zhongwei discovers an original 1906 layout drawing from local Christian archives.

“It’s a thorough repair inside out since the church hasn’t any big-scale restorations since 1982 and the roof leaks seriously,” says Chen who is the chief architect of the project.

“We tried to repair with original, natural materials as much as possible for the roof tiles, the floor tiles, the bricks and the granite on the façade,” Chen says.

“My team was lucky to find only one piece of original square-shaped floor tile in one of the aisles that gave the pattern and size for reproduction. I also asked the workers to repair using traditional techniques like those used for Beijing’s Forbidden City — for instance, grinding with Chinese wood oil and adding glutinous rice in the material to enhance strength.”

Chen’s team also found some interesting Chinese elements on this Western cathedral such as bricks with patterns of ancient Chinese coins and beautiful stone-carved animals under the cornice. During heavy rain, water would drip through the mouths of these smartly designed stone ornaments.

“We used lime, a traditional material which is soft and breathable compared with cement,” adds Liu Yong, deputy general manager of Shanghai Xufang Construction in charge of the project.

“We made models of the cathedral’s big roof to study how to pave the tiles scientifically. We also use the models to teach our workers the best paving practices before they finally repair the tall roof,” Liu adds.

Chen notes that modern facilities, such as TV screens and audio system are being added this time. But air-conditioning installation plans were dropped for heritage preservation reasons.

“The cathedral is a national cultural relic for preservation so every bit of repair has to respect the history loyally. We are a bit slower than the schedule, but quality is our first concern,” says the architect.

St Ignatius Cathedral’s signature double bell towers are reinforced this time. “The symmetrical bell towers are unique and unprecedented in modern Shanghai,” says Zhou.

“Double bell towers of a church were expensive to build early last century, and required complicated techniques. As the leading Cathedral in Jiangnan, St Ignatius Cathedral was no ordinary church, so architect Dowdall must have chosen this style to suit its position. It’s the first and also the last Gothic church with double bell towers in the city,” Zhou explains.

“Due to its grand size, beautiful design, lavish decorations and advanced technology, the cathedral in Xujiahui was renowned as Shanghai’s top building for over a decade until the erection of the former HSBC building on the Bund in 1923. The two parallel bell towers at a height of 56 meters, became the top point of all modern churches in Shanghai, until today,” he says.


From the author:

A telescope in the hand of a statue of Xu Guangqi attracted the attention of my four-year-old son during a visit to the newly reopened memorial hall honoring the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scientist. My son peered into the telescope and asked what the bearded figure was looking at.

Xu is often called the “Francis Bacon of China” or “the first Chinese who opened his eyes to the world” and the downtown area of Xujiahui is named after him. He was born in Shanghai in 1562, during an era when interest in science was declining in China.

In 1600, on a trip to Beijing, Xu met the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci and converted to Catholicism. Ricci was a true Renaissance man and shared his knowledge across a spectrum of science and humanities subjects with Xu.

Together, they translated several ancient Western texts, most notably part of Euclid’s “Elements,” into Chinese. Xu became a scientist and scholar in his own right. He set up Western astronomy instruments in Beijing, experimented with the cultivation of sweet potatoes in Shanghai to feed the needy, helped organize self-sufficient military settlements in Tianjin and authored many books on practical science, from agriculture and hydraulics to the significant “Chongzhen Almanac.”

When he died in 1633 in Beijing, Xu held minister-level positions. He was buried in farmland in what was then western Shanghai. His descendants eventually settled there. The name Xujiahui means “gathering of the Xu family.”

After Shanghai opened its port in 1843, the Jesuits returned to Xujiahui in 1847 largely due to Xu. Xujiahui became a hub for the spread of science and culture. It was the home of China’s first library, its first Western-style middle school, first museum, first modern publishing house, first observatory and three of Shanghai’s most important universities.

Today, some historical buildings from the “Xujiahui era” still exist.

Thinking of my son’s question, it occurred to me that the spirit and scientific curiosity of “Shanghai Xu,” never taken seriously in his lifetime, should be revived today as Shanghai strives to become a global hub for science, technology and innovative thinking.

Maybe what Xu was gazing at through a 17th-century telescope was our future in the 21st century.

My column series on Xujiahui as a historic center of science and learning comes to an end today. While at the Bund, Chinese and Western cultures were forced together by gunpowder, Xujiahui was where two cultures blended in the heart of a Chinese man in a natural, boundless way.

I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I do. Later this spring let’s embark on a new exploration.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend