Sunday, August 23, 2009

Unknown (Kingdom of Heaven)

Title: Unknown (Kingdom of Heaven)

Artist: Unknown (Japanese)

Medium: paint on parchment

Size: 20 x 30 cm

Date: c. 18th century

Location: Ikitsuki museum, Hirado.

After the brutal Japanese prohibition of Christianity in 1614, most images and icons were used only to ferret out Christians hiding among the populace. Officials would make everyone in an area step on a Christian image to prove they were not adherents of the faith. These images were called fumie, and usually depicted Christ, Mary and crosses. In response to this oppression some groups, mainly on the northwest coast of Kyushu and some small coastal islands, maintained the Christian faith in secret until in 1873, when under pressure from Western powers the freedom of worship is restored. These groups who prevailed against state oppression became know as Kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christians).

Images created by Japanese Christians are scant due, in most part, to the relentless persecution they faced. Figures of the saints and the Virgin Mary that were made skillfully exploited the similarities between Catholicism and Buddhism and were transformed into figurines that looked like the traditional statues of the Buddha and Buddhist Bodhisattavas. Prayers were adapted to sound like Buddhist prayers, yet retained many untranslated words from Latin, Portuguese and Spanish. The Bible was passed down orally, due to fears of printed works being confiscated by authorities. Scrolls and artwork not disguised were hidden and passed down through generations in secret Christian families.

The scroll shown here was created anonymously, and shows the Japanese impressions of the Christian teachings, with God the father, Mary and Jesus, and a winged angel to the left. The traditional European imagery is well represented, from the swirling and parting of heavenly clouds to the angels feathered wings.

In modern times, with the economic condition pulling the youth away from remote areas, many of the Kakure Kirishitan groups are thinning or even disbanding. Further, many of the families who used to be Kakure Kirishitan have rejoined the Catholic Church, or given up the faith entirely.

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