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Temple to the Holy Mothers 01 (Shengmu miao 聖母廟) Taubes, Hannibal


The temple is located in Yu County (Yu xian 蔚縣), Hebei 河北 Province. An approximate location has been provided and the village name and precise coordinates have been concealed to protect potentially vulnerable sites from looters. The temple to the Holy Mothers (Shengmu miao 聖母廟) is located outside of the walls of the old fortified village and several hundred meters to the south. The temple is faced to the south by an opera stage (xitai 戲台) of similar or slightly newer age. A number of steles have been used to repair the stage platform, but not all of these are now legible. Two which are readable are reproduced at pages 428 and 432 of Deng Qingping, 鄧慶平, Yu xian beiming jilu 蔚縣碑銘輯錄 (Guilin: Guanxi shifan daxue chubanshe, 2009). According to these, the temple was first constructed at its current site in 1710, at which point it was painted by a painter-artisan (huajiang 畫匠) of the surname Wang 王. After heavy damage due to rain, the building and statues were repaired again in 1785. The style of the murals overall points strongly to the eighteenth century, but several parts of the room seem to be in different hands and palettes, suggesting that parts of the rain-damaged walls may have been repainted at a later date. The temple building is now used to store coffins and corn-stalk fodder, and the only way to photograph inside is to lay on top of the coffins and take pictures to the left and right, hence all of the full-wall shots are composites and may contain small distortions. The iconographic program of the temple is complex. The northern wall would originally have been fronted by an altar with three statues to the three Holy Mothers, known locally as the Ladies (Niangniang 娘娘) or Grandmothers (Nainai 奶奶). The murals on the wall behind these long-gone statues show trompe-l'œil screens that once backed their thrones, around which peek life-sized palace maidens, strumming heavenly instruments. The east and west walls show a fairly standard procession scene. On the east wall, the three Holy Mothers ride out on palanquins from the Traveling Palace of Mount Tai (泰山行宮) to dispense fertility to the human world. On the west wall they return. The divine palace is rendered in a pale palette with angular towers and European-style flourishes above the windows, suggesting that it may have been modeled on the Jesuit-built Mansions of the Western Seas (Xiyanglou 西洋樓) in the imperial Gardens of Perfect Illumination (Yuanmingyuan 圓明園) near Beijing, or on popular prints that depicted European buildings. In any case, this is one of the earliest and finest depictions of European themes known from north-Chinese temple art. The triangular panels in the rafters, painted in two quite different styles, show scenes involving either female immortals (Chang'e 嫦娥 in the moon) or the god Zhang Xian 張仙 shooting a 'sky-dog' (Tiangou 天狗) to protect human children from its baleful influence.

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