Between 1571 and 1640 Portuguese traders accompanied by Jesuit missionaries sailed into the Bay of Nagasaki once a year on an enormous carrack. In 1640 the shogun put into effect a seclusionist policy that closed the country to all outsiders other than Chinese merchants, a handful of Dutch traders, and occasional Korean emmissaries. Within a few years Christianity was a capital offense. Until 1624 there was also a small trade between the Japanese and the Spanish, who were based in the Philippine Islands. Spanish ships sailed every summer from Manila to Mexico and a few entered Japanese ports. Small teams of Spanish Franciscan friars propagated their faith in Kyoto, Nagasaki and elsewhere. This altar results from that dynamic conflation of East and West around 1600.
The Portuguese Jesuits commissioned local craftsmen to make votive objects for use in the churches they were establishing in Japan and for export to the West for profit. The fad for namban art was at its peak between about 1590 and 1614. Few pieces have survived in Japan itself as most were confiscated during the severe persecutions of Christian missionaries and converts in the 1620s and 30s. Most namban ("southern barbarian") lacquers, so called because the foreigners came to Japan from the south, have been found in the West; portable lacquer altars only came to light in the last twenty years.
This private altar, an exotic luxury, probably was opened only for special occasions. It is based on portable altar triptychs introduced from Byzantium as ivories and icons; by the sixteenth century the type was ubiquitous in Europe. The central icon probably was placed in the case once it was delivered to the West. While there are no overt Christian symbols provided by the lacquer artist--there are two birds above the icon rather than the single dove of the Holy Spirit, for example--the side panels feature birds among orange and paulownia trees that probably signify the lush vegetation and pleasures of paradise. Inhabited vines and trees in Christian art suggest the Peacable Kingdom, a place of milk and honey, and the brids in cages represent the soul that will be liberated by Christ. The windowlike cartouches on the wings are framed with bands of geometric, abstract patterns and undulating scrolls typical of the vocablulary of namban lacquer.
Lacquers made for Japanese use are customarily light and fragile and are stored in wood boxes specially made for them. They were often presentation pieces kept in the same family collection generation after generation. In contrast, the religious icons commissioned by the Jesuits for export to Europe had to survive long voyages and rough handling.
A density of decoration that seems quite un-Japanese characterizes namban lacquers. The trees, birds, and bird cages here are overlapped and crowded together in such profusion that the design is difficult to decipher. Even the sides, top and bottom are decorated with scrolling morning glories and other vines. (Lacquerware produced for the local market was far more austere.) A rather coarse craftsmanship is typical of these early namban lacquers intended for export although their sparkling mother-of-pearl inlay, a technique that achieved great popularity at this time, distinguishes them. There are several possible sources of influence for the increased use of shell. Portuguese traders in Goa, the center of the Portuguese empire in Asia, acquired products of Indian craftsmen inlaid with wood and ivory. At the same time, Japan's invasion of Korea in the late sixteenth century may have exposed the Japanese to Korean lacquers, which are lavishly decorated with shell inlay. European traders may also have come to appreciate the technique through Chinese inlaid lacquers. "Like the Momoyama period itself, Namban lacquers are energetic and eclectic" (Pekarik, in Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama, p. 257). And the exotic mother-of-pearl and gold-lacquer (maki-e) surfaces would glitter by candlelight in dark church interiors. The icon painted in oil on panel is a Madonna lactans in the style of the Flemish school of the second half of the seventeenth century. Originally there was a metal ring at the top of the shrine for hanging. The metal screws are replacements for nails.
In 1987 the Itabashi Art Museum assembled ten altars, of varying size and quality, for an exhibition of namban art. An altar from the Suntory Museum, Tokyo, which is illustrated in color on the cover of the Itabashi catalogue, is so similar in shape and design to the altar here that it is likely they were produced in the same lacquer workshop. One scholar recently has attributed the painting inside the altar to the school of Brother Giovanni Niccolo (1563-1626), a capable painter from Naples who became director of the Japanese Jesuit art academy.
For other discussions of Christian shrines see: Andrew J. Pekarik, "Lacquer and Metalwork" in Money L. Hickman, et al., Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1996) pp. 237-57;
Namban bijutsuten/Namban Art (Tokyo: Itabashi Art Museum, 1987);
Toshio Watanabe, "Namban Lacquer Shrines: Some New Discoveries," in Lacquerwork in Asia and Beyond, ed. William Watson (London: Percival David Foundation, 1981)
Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542--1773 (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 1999), no. 34.
Christie's Review of the Season, 1990, p. 430 [sold Christie's, London, 5 June, 1990, lot 371].