Jesuits In Portugal: History And Art
Published: Sunday, February 17, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 17, 2013 23:02
The year is 1543. The first Portuguese carracks, massive freighters, arrive on the shores of southern Japan—the natives simply refer to them as the “black ships.” They are larger than any vessel the Japanese have likely seen before. Their complex wooden structures are a lurid imposition on the Pacific skyline, with masts rising above the tiled rooflines of the Japanese cityscape.
To the Japanese, the Portuguese traders arriving at their shores are nanban-jin, “southern barbarians.” They communicate in crude mannerisms. They are uncivilized company. They have large rounded eyes and “tall” noses. Japanese depictions of these merchants at the time allude to the tengu, a mythical creature in Japanese folklore: half-bird, half man, enigmatic in nature, and holding insatiable power.
Portugal, Jesuits, and Japan: Spiritual Beliefs and Earthly Goods opened in the McMullen Museum, located on the first floor of Devlin Hall, on Feb. 16. It was curated by Victoria Weston and Alexandra Curvelo, and was underwritten by Boston College, the Patrons of the McMullen Museum, Leslie and Peter Ciampi, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Portugal, the Consulate General of Portugal in Boston, and the Calouste Guldenkian Foundation.
The exhibit focuses on nearly a century of interaction, beginning in 1543, between the Japanese people and the Portuguese, namely traders and Jesuit missionaries. Tracing shifts in the dichotomy of this relationship through the exchange of earthly goods and beliefs, Portugal, Jesuits, And Japan paints a winsome, complex, and devastating portrait of a provincial fascination.
Seven intricate six-panel Nanban trade screens crown the two-floor exhibition. Reading from right to left, these Japanese paintings engage in a brand of storytelling strikingly similar to the ecclesiastical art o+f Europe of that period. The Japanese tell stories of the complex working relationship they had with the Portuguese merchants and Jesuit missionaries—and this relationship could vary from violence to spiritual exchanges in a single panel.
The Japanese were fascinated, and at times horrified, by the massive European freighters and the ostentatious customs of these foreigners. The Portuguese traders emerging from the carracks are shown with animal-like physiognomies, with hooked noses and brutish bone structures. As the trade screens would indicate, the frilly pantaloons and respective plumage of the Portuguese likely drew savory reactions from the islanders. The exotic creatures and dark skinned servants they brought certainly would have also added to the incredulity toward the European visitors. These images of the Portuguese savages are something to revel in, certainly from the American Eurocentric perspectives on history, that nearly always rather hold the indigenous as the barbarians.
The Japanese images of the Jesuit missionaries, in contrast with those of the merchants, exude sagacity. The Japanese paint these men much as they would Buddhist monks, and it’s fair to say their early missionary presence was viewed with favor. The trade screens show the Christian churches these Jesuits would have established—they adopt provincial Japanese architectural style, with many smaller, tiled roof building forming religious complexes. This Jesuit method of “accommodation,” involving the assimilation of the missionaries into the culture, was used to convert the daimyo, Japan’s ruling class, to Catholicism. Because of this cultural mindfulness, the Jesuits served as an important proxy between Japanese and Portuguese culture, creating many of the earliest European maps of Japan and Japanese-Portuguese dictionaries. By evidence of the impressive stature of the Jesuits in Japanese art, it can be believed these missionaries were highly respected in their early dealings with the Japanese.
Portugal, Jesuits, and Japan employs a manifold of trade goods, portraits, furniture pieces, garments, and weaponry to offer a substantive context for the seven screens. Pieces of Japanese samurai armor are seen adopting styling cues from gaudy Portuguese style. Japanese carpentry takes European form, but is adorn with urushi, a lacquer of Asian tree saps. Japanese ceramics participate in traditional Christian symbolism of the period. The respective symbolic languages of these two countries are adjoined in these relics, and articulate together relatively profound statements on Japan and Portugal interactions. These peoples were averse and crude to one another, but equally fascinating and enlightening. The sheer weight of the spiritual and artistic traditions of these two nations could seemingly transcend the gaping cultural divide.
But perhaps equally pervasive between these two cultures was a fascination of violence. In the essential historical context of Portugal and Japan’s trade, the Portuguese were the people who introduced Japan to guns. By use of Portuguese firearms, three successive Japanese lords of war ended the political divisions of 16th-century Japan, uniting the Japanese people under a common fear of gun violence.