TYPE: Ema (Wooden Plaque)
DIMENSIONS: 20 X 31 1/2 inches
COMPONENTS: Painting on wood
NOTES: Japanese antique- rare and early.

ITEM ID: 3846
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Ema Votive Painting of Portuguese bringing Christianity to Japan

Decade: 1800s
Century: 19th (1801-1900)
Notes: C. 1800

Note the priest, the hidden cross at the top of the parasol above him and then the black slaves in the image. There is no inscription, but this painting depicts Christianity being introduced to Japan by the Portuguese.

According to scholar Romulo Ehalt, “This is such a great piece. It was clearly based on a folding screen that now integrates the collection of the Nanban Bunkakan, in Osaka.

The character under the large umbrella ahead of the group of merchants was a captain-major, or capitão-mor, a royal representative chosen annually among Portuguese citizens of high social status to trade in Japan and who also had civil authority over all Portuguese citizens wherever he went beyond the empire’s borders. Along with him are possibly his children, given it was very common for Portuguese men to have children with Asian women (often enslaved women). In turn, these women oversaw their residences and their businesses whenever they were abroad. On the right, a couple of missionaries receive the group. The main characteristic of nanban folding screens and, consequently, these votive boards was to depict foreigners and foreign objects, such as the glasses, the dogs, and the chair one of the enslaved men is carrying. Hence, Japanese people are shown as observers. However, researchers have yet to understand what purpose these votive boards had during the Edo period, especially considering they were often gifted to Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines.”

The Portuguese were the first Western Europeans to arrive to Japan in the middle of the 16th century. They brought Roman Catholicism with them and this was the first contact of Christianity in Japan (though some scholars believe that Nestorian Christianity arrived and retreated centuries earlier). Nagasaki became the center of Japanese Catholicism, and maintained close cultural and religious ties to its Portuguese origins. These ties were severed once Christianity was outlawed in 1640; at this point, Catholicism went underground, its rites preserved by the Kakure Kirishitan, or “hidden Christians”, who continued practicing their faith in secret private devotion until Christianity was allowed again in 1873.

A multitude of Japanese Catholics were brutally tortured and killed for their faith, thus becoming martyrs. Many of these martyrs have been canonized, and their liturgical memorial is celebrated each year on February 6 in honor of their fidelity to Christ and his Church unto death.

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