Kyoto National Museum, ed., Maki-e/Maki-e: The Beauty of Black and Gold Japanese Lacquer, exh. cat. (Kyoto: Kyoto National Museum, 1985), pl. 134.
Saison Museum and Shizuoka Prefecture Museum, eds., Porutogaru to namban bunka (Portugal and namban culture) (1993), pl. 185.
Takeda Tsuneo, ed., Nihon no bi "Momoyama" ten (Japanese beauty, "Momoyama" exhibition) (1997), pl. 10.
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 emissaries. 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. A handful 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 ("southern barbarian") art, so called because the foreigners came to China and Japan from the south, was at its peak between about 1590 and 1614. Few pieces have survived in Japan itself as most were confiscated during the severe persecutions against Christian missionaries and converts in the 1620s and 30s. Most namban objects have been found in the West; portable lacquer shrines only came to light in the last twenty-five years.
This private devotional shrine, an exotic luxury, was probably 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. Donor portraits or saints normally appear on the wings of European altarpieces. The central icon, an oil painting on wood panel, may be Joseph holding the Christ child. The iconography is unclear. Painted in provincial Iberian style, it was probably placed in the case once it was delivered to the West. While there are no overt Christian symbols provided by the lacquer artist, the side panels feature birds among flowering paulownia, camellia, weeping cherry, and mandarin orange trees that probably signify the lush vegetation and pleasures of paradise. Inhabited vines and trees in Christian art suggest the Peaceable Kingdom, a place of milk and honey. The windowlike cartouches on the wings are framed with bands of geometric, abstract patterns typical of the vocabulary of namban lacquer.
Lacquers made for Japanese use are customarily light and fragile and are stored in wood boxes especially 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 and birds here are overlapped and crowded together in such profusion that the design is difficult to decipher. No surface is left uncovered. (Lacquerware produced for the domestic 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 in the late sixteenth century, Japan's invasion of Korea 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. There is a metal ring at the top of the shrine for hanging. The metal ring and the door hinges are original.
For other discussions of Christian shrines see: Andrew J. Pekarik, "Lacquer and Metalwork" in Money L. Hickman et al., Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama, exh. cat. (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1996) pp. 237-57; Namban bijutsuten/Namban Art, exh. cat. (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); Christie's Review of the Season, 1990, p. 430.