Arrival of the "Southern Barbarians", detail. The Cleveland Museum of Art

Emotions as Practice in the early modern Jesuit missions in the Asia-Pacific

The project “Emotions as Practice in the early modern Jesuit missions in the Asia-Pacific” (EMOPractices) approaches the XVI-XVIII century Asian enterprises of the Society of Jesus through the lens of emotions, with the aim to analyse the role of Jesuit emotional practices and their impact on the Western creation of the image of peoples of the Asia-Pacific region. EMOPractices operates at the junction of history and anthropology; it is supervised by Prof. Giovanni Bulian of Ca’ Foscari University Venice and by Prof. Susan Broomhall of the Australian Catholic University, while Prof. Monique Scheer and Prof. Renate Dürr oversee the secondment at the University of Tübingen.


Research on emotions has been an effervescent, developing field for the past twenty years now, so that it is possible to speak of an “emotional turn” in the social sciences and humanities.

The perceived ahistorical nature of emotions has long been refuted, and tracing through time the genealogy of the concept of “emotion” itself has allowed the critical analysis of the category.

While the connections existing between religion and feelings have received discreet attention, Catholic missions and the roles of feelings in the processes of evangelization have yet to be thoroughly explored.

Madonna of the Thumb, detail. Edited from ColBase https://colbase.nich.go.jp/
Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Nicolas Trigault in Chinese Costume, detail. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Carl Selden Trust, several members of The Chairman's Council, Gail and Parker Gilbert, and Lila Acheson Wallace Gifts, 1999

EMOPractices considers, as primary sources, missionary literature by the members of the Society of Jesus in Asia and in the Pacific, between the 16th and the 18th century.

Jesuit missionaries were often found at the forefront of early modern intercultural contacts and created letters and reports where the visual elements of foreign cultures appeared described with a wealth of details, for the eager consumption of the European public.

However, a close reading of these documents also reveals the centrality of emotions in the Jesuit evangelization practices.

Feelings were a key component of the “motions of the soul” that Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, identified as a central tool to discern spirits, and, therefore, to understand to live according to God’s will.

Just as most Jesuits showed to find emotions important in their spiritual lives, they considered them a key aspect of any process of conversion too. Moreover, as emotions were considered universal, they appeared to enable a direct, non-verbal communication across humankind, that in turn could support the verbal transmission of the religious message, that is, the final aim of the Jesuit missionaries.

Thus, although the Jesuits generally called attention to the purported higher rationality of the Christian message, the emotional dimensions of evangelization were not less essential and could sensibly impact missionary policies and the image of the Other produced by missionary literature.

Maria Kannon. Edited from ColBase https://colbase.nich.go.jp/
Marinus Robyn van der Goes (after Peter Paul Rubens), H. Franciscus Xaverius wekt een dode tot leven, detail. Rijksmuseum

EMOPractices analyses Jesuit writings by considering emotions as practices, following a Bourdieuian approach theorized by Monique Scheer (2012).

It will therefore identify the emotional typologies used by the missionaries to classify different Asian people; the practices that characterized the new emotional communities, together with their hierarchies, rules and control systems; and the mechanisms of the discursive creation of the “emotional Other,” as part of the changes in the early modern European understanding of the world and humankind.


Dr. Linda Zampol D’Ortia

Marie Skłodowska Curie Global fellow
Department of Asian and North African Studies
Ca’ Foscari University of Venice