Japanese Art

A 16th Century Shrine for Japan's Early Christians

By Sotheby's
Sotheby's Fine Japanese Art sale on 14 May brings to auction a remarkable piece of Christian history, dating back to the 16th century and the arrival of the Jesuits in Japan.

W hen Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) arrived in Japan in 1549 to commence his missionary work of converting the Japanese to Christianity, he brought with him several Italian paintings of religious subjects of Christ, the Virgin Mary and various saints. These were originally intended to decorate the various churches which he hoped to construct, but as time went by he realised that there was an increasingly strong demand from local converts for copies of these religious images to assist them in their devotions, and at the same time these images were extremely useful for disseminating the knowledge of Christianity.

As Francis Xavier was deemed to be a representative of the King of Portugal he received a friendly welcome, despite the misgivings of the local governor, and his teaching of Catholicism met with great initial success. In a short while the demand for hanging lacquer shrines and portable lecterns exceeded the supply, and the Jesuits commissioned further works from the Jesuit Curia in Rome but, owing to the long-time gap, in many cases several years, between the original request and its subsequent delivery in Japan the they were obliged to commission local Japanese artists to produce copies of the paintings and at the same time to arrange for their hanging lacquer cases to be made by local artisans in Kyoto. As a consequence, the majority of these oil paintings on copper or wooden panels show a European stylistic influence, whereas the lacquer cases are decorated with a mingling of European and Japanese Kano style. At the same time a Neapolitan Jesuit, Brother Giovanni Niccolò (1563-1626) who had arrived in Nagasaki in 1583, set up the Jesuit Art Academy in Kyushu which became an active centre for many Chinese and Japanese students.

Very few of these pieces remain to-day as Christianity was banned by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1620, the missionaries were expelled and a long campaign of execution and persecution against both those missionaries who remained illegally, and all their converts was carried out and virtually every item of Christian significance was systematically rooted out and destroyed. In fact, the practice of Christianity was totally banned until the Meiji (1868-1912) period. As a consequence, these portable Christian shrines are extremely rare and only about twenty are currently known to have survived.

The existence of such Nanban (‘Southern Barbarian’) shrines was first recognized by Martha Boyer in 1951 (Boyer, Japanese Export Lacquer [Copenhagen, 1951], p. xxvii, pl.23). Subsequent research by the Japanese lacquer scholars Okada Jo and Arakawa Hirozaku, as well as by Toshio Watanabe, Haino Akio and Oliver Impey subsequently discovered further examples.

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