Cosmography and sources

Giovanni da Montecorvino (1247-1328) was the founder of the Catholic mission in China. Having taken vows as an adult in 1270 at the Franciscan monastery of San Lorenzo in Naples, he was sent in 1279 as a missionary to Armenia, Persia, and other regions in the Middle East. When Giovanni returned to Rome in 1288, Pope Nicholas IV (1227-1292)—who had received from Kublai Khan (1215-1294) a request that Christian missionaries be sent to his court—ordered Giovanni to travel to Khān Bālīq to establish the first mission in the Far East. The monk set out for Persia in 1289 bearing papal missives to various Eastern potentates and the emperor himself. He remained in Persia until 1291, then proceeded onward into India, where he preached for thirteen months, and finally sailed for northern China, arriving there in 1294.

He reached Khān Bālīq only to discover that Kublai Khan had died, replaced by Temür Khan (1265-1307). Although unable to convince the new emperor to become a Christian, Giovanni entered into his good graces and built two churches in the city, in 1299 and 1305, the second of which stood directly before the imperial palace. He taught Latin to the youth of many families, both Christian and not, and to advance his missionary goals he learned the language of the Mongolian ruling class, translating the New Testament and the Book of Psalms into Uighur. Regrettably, neither of these texts have come down to us.

He is said to have converted around six thousand people, including the Nestorian Christian King Körgis (active second half 13th cent.-early 14th cent.), who Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324) also names in his travel accounts. In 1307, Pope Clement V (ca. 1260-1314) sent seven more Franciscan missionaries, whom he authorized to consecrate Giovanni as Archbishop of Khān Bālīq and principal episcopal authority in all China. Giovanni died there in 1328, just as Odorico da Pordenone (ca. 1280-1331) was about to reach the Mongol capital.