The devotional image in the shrine offered here was painted on copper by an anonymous Flemish artist in the early seventeenth century. The lacquer case is decorated with autumn motifs and tendril meander common to Japanese Nanban (‘Southern Barbarian’) lacquers as a whole (and first introduced around 1580), but unlike other examples, this shrine is highly unusual because it does not employ mother-of-pearl inlay and does not feature images of birds and butterflies. (Mother-of-pearl was used to reflect candlelight in dark interiors). The absence of mother-of-pearl is puzzling but may indicate an early date and certainly aligns this piece with Kodaiji lacquers that were popular around 1590 to 1600.
The lacquer artist made extensive use of the harigaki technique: a sharp instrument like a needle (hari) was used to incise details into the lacquer before it was fully dried. The gold and silver hiramaki-e (powdered gold and silver decoration in low or flat relief), left unpolished, and the use of the so-called Nanban tendril meander also provide stylistic and technical links to lacquers preserved at Kodaiji Temple, Kyoto, the mausoleum completed in 1606 for Kitano Mandokoro, the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1568–1595). The Kodaiji Temple lacquers were probably originally made for Hideyoshi’s nearby Fushimi Castle in the 1590s, but were repurposed for the mausoleum.
In the spread of Nanban devotional art, the trade went both ways. Portuguese Jesuits commissioned local Japanese craftsmen to make votive objects—portable lacquer hanging shrines and folding lecterns—for use in the churches they were establishing in Japan and also for export to the West for profit. Few pieces survived in Japan itself as most were confiscated during the severe persecutions against Christian missionaries and converts in the 1620s and 1630s. Most Nanban objects have been found in the West, although many have now been repatriated to Japan. The lacquer cases for these hanging shrines were made in a non-Christian lacquer workshop in Kyoto. The religious icons commissioned by the Jesuits for export to Europe as private altars had to survive long voyages and rough handling.
In 1549, Francis Xavier, who founded the Jesuit order with Ignatius Loyola nine years earlier, arrived in Japan to begin evangelising. That missionary effort was a success, attracting many converts, and the original supply of religious artefacts was soon exhausted. Japanese converts requested images of the Saviour, the Virgin Mary and the various saints. To meet that demand, the Jesuits commissioned local artists to copy imported religious art and they sent for supplies from the Jesuit Curia in Rome. Several years might elapse before shipments arrived from Europe. As a result, there was increased use of local artisans as Japan’s so-called Christian Century progressed. A great deal of Christian art was produced in Japan at that time, although much of it was inevitably lost during the subsequent persecution of Christians. The few surviving Japanese paintings of Christian themes show Western stylistic influence. Liturgical lacquer objects, on the other hand, display an interesting mixture of Eastern and Western taste.
The icons housed in shrines are painted in oil on either panel or copper. Most were probably placed in a case once they were delivered to the West. Some icons, however, are attributed to the school of Brother Giovanni Niccolò (1563–1626), a capable painter from Naples, who reached Nagasaki in 1583 and became director of the Japanese Jesuit art academy in Kyushu. This Seminary of Painters was the most flourishing Jesuit art workshop in Asia, flush with both Japanese and Chinese students.
Japanese portable Christian shrines are extremely rare. 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 Hirokazu, as well as by Toshio Watanabe, Haino Akio and Oliver Impey, uncovered more and the corpus now numbers at least a dozen. Extant examples take two forms. They are basically rectangular cases with two folding doors. Some, including the example offered here, have decorative pediments. Only those shrines with decorative pediments have images of the Virgin. An example in a private collection has a painting with the nearly identical iconography of the Virgin with Joseph, the infant St. John the Baptist, and Christ Child (see Haino Akio, Maki-e/The Beauty of Black and Gold Japanese Lacquer [Kyoto: Kyoto National Museum, 1995], pl. 130). All shrines have gilt-copper fittings. In the present example, the fittings are decorated with cherry blossoms, a deliberate counterpoint to the autumn imagery decorating the doors. The dense floral imagery of pinks and bell flowers on the back of the doors is darkened now owing to an overlay of varnish. The interior design of bush clover is elegant and simple, curving gently toward the intimate painting at the centre.
For a similar example now in the Kyushu National Museum collection, see Sezon Museum of Art and Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, eds., ‘Porutogaru to Nanban bunka’ ten: mezase toho no kuniguni (‘Portugal and Nanban culture’ exhibition: Via Orientals) (Tokyo, 1993), p. 206, no. 184; and go to the Kyushu National Museum website (Japanese): http:/www.kyuhaku.jp/collection/collection_gl01.html. For a shrine with similar design of autumn grasses on the doors, see Oliver R. Impey, Japanese Export Lacquer 1580–1850 (Amsterdam, 2005), p. 186, fig. 445.