What Did Nanban Art Offer?



"...Although they copy nature in their paintings, they do not like a multitude and crowd of things in pictures, but prefer to portray, even in a sumptuous and lovely palace, just a few solitary things with due proportion between them, and indeed they distinguish themselves in this respect. But they know very little about painting the human body and it's various parts, and they can hardly be compared with our painters as regards the portrayal of the body itself and the proportions of its members; they lack a true knowledge of shading figures, for it is this which makes figures stand out and gives them strength and beauty."

Joao Rodrigues. (Cooper 1965 p.254)


There are varying definitions of what Nanban Art was. At it's broadest definition Nanban art is now considered to be any kind of art influenced by the arrival of the Nanban or 'Southern Barbarians' i.e., the European missionaries and merchants in Japan during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This encompasses the religious and secular work of Japanese artists working with the newly imported style of western art, using western subject matter (The strict meaning of what Nanban art is), art imported to Japan by the Europeans, traditional style screens depicting Europeans and finally portraits of Japanese subjects such as Daruma in western style. Nanban art dates between 1549 with the arrival of the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier and 1614 when the missionaries were expelled by Tokugawa Ieyasu and the general persecution of Christianity (especially Catholicism) began, at the time when hostile Dutch merchants interfere with Portuguese trade and for the first time an effective central government is established.
Nanban art offered Japan a view of the world. The amalgamation of Western and Japanese themes in art anticipated the opening of Japan to the west in the Meiji period by three centuries. Although the development of this fusion was cut short whilst still immature, the craftsmanship of the largely anonymous Nanban artists is admirable. There is relatively little known about Nanban art due to the subsequent suppression of Catholicism, yet pure observation of the surviving works allows us to imagine how the artists experienced the new European cultural influences, what models were available to them (and therefore what was popular at the time in Europe and considered representative), and how 'the west' became a popular and exotic artifact to their patrons aside from having a devotional function. Nanban art also documented important events of the time, showing us how the excitement of the arrival of the 'red-haired barbarians' turned into xenophobia largely due to the fear of colonization.
For a full understanding of the art it is necessary to have an overview of the historical and political background and an awareness of the main trends in Japanese art during this 'Christian century' in Japan.
Nanban art developed out of Nanban trade and depended on the breakdown of trade relations with China; the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) forbid direct trade with Japan and so Iberian (ancient Spanish/Portuguese) merchants were free to exploit Japan's rich silver supply in exchange for Chinese silks. Other secondary exports included swords, lacquerware and kimonos etc. The Portuguese carried vast amounts of cargo in their carracks or nao and generally monopolized the trade in and out of Japan running from Lisbon to Goa, Malacca, Macao and then Nagasaki. There were also merchants from Spain and Mexico and other missionaries. The trade began when three Portuguese traders arrived on the Tanegashima, south of Kyushu in 1543. The Daimyo saw the trade as an opportunity to finance their regional wars and so Nagasaki was allowed to become the headquarters of Portuguese trade in 1570. At the same time Roman Catholicism was introduced to Japan by the Spanish and Portuguese. The society of Jesus had been formed to reform the church and compete with the surge of Protestantism in Europe. One of its founder members was St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) who arrived in Kagoshima in Kyushu in 1549 after traveling through India, Malacca and the Moluccas, and many more missionaries were to follow. By the end of the Azuchi period in 1581 there were 75 Jesuit missionaries and over 200 churches. The missionaries arrived in a country which had suffered from war and disease. Lower ranking samurai were struggling for power and the economics of this 'age of warlords' (Fujita) gave the new foreigners an opportunity to propagate their religion.
Oda Nobunaga, the first of the three great military leaders favored the Jesuits as an antidote to the politically strong Buddhist monasteries when he took control of Kyoto and central Honshu in 1568. But he was also deeply interested in their ideas of castle fortification and the weapons they brought with them as well as their religion. The pure Land Buddhist sect made all people equal and became a driving force for peasants to retaliate against the landowners. Nobunagas hatred of Buddhism ensured his hospitality for the new foreigners who could not have anticipated how it would end.
When Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582 he was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a man of modest background who had risen to a high-ranking general. Hideyoshi's letters to the Philippines show that he had no intention to encourage Christianity in Japan, and he instigated two minor persecutions in 1587 and 1597 especially against Spanish Franciscans and Dominicans. He didn't care about commoners converting to Christianity but it irritated him to see noblemen converting. Obsessed by his ambition to invade China, he invaded Korea in 1592 where his troops remained in stalemate until his death in 1598.
His successor Tokugawa Ieyasu also had a vested personal interest in the silk trade and so initially held a policy of tolerance towards Christianity although he was far from welcoming. The arrival of the Dutch in 1609 meant that Ieyasu no longer had to rely on the Portuguese for this trade. The Jesuits themselves, however, were very enthusiastic about the Japanese who Francis Xavier described as: "...the best people so far discovered, and it seems to me that among unbelievers no people can be found to excel them." It was this enthusiasm that was to inspire the production of western art in Japan as if the passing on of these techniques was communion with the Christian God Himself. Ieyasu's successors Hidetada and Iemitsu, despised Christianity. In 1612 the Bakufu changed it's policy of tolerance and banned Christianity. The missionaries were ordered to leave in 1614 and Japan became closed to all Europeans except the Dutch merchants based in Deshima in Nagasaki bay. Brutal persecution of Christians began and was only legally reversed in 1873 under the Meiji Restoration.
Main Currents of Japanese art:
Sesshu, the champion of Chinese style black and white ink painting had died in 1506, and many painters continued his tradition gradually making it more 'Japanese' through use of subject matter as well as technique.
The Kano school painters also started to use indigenous scenes and subjects in their work and headed in a more 'decorative' direction as well as the yamato-e of the Tosa school. many of the Nanban screens are considered to have been painted by some of the lesser members of the Kano school such as Kano Naizen (1570-1616) and Kano Mitsunobu.
The Onin war in Kyoto had spread and caused the Ashikaga shogun to lose power to the Daimyo and feudal lords who were struggling to rise in status. This nouveau riche created a demand for lavish and impressive artworks to invoke an image of authority and affluence and this fashion was copied by wealthy merchants who emulated the upper class. This art was predominantly large panels or screens with gold or silver backgrounds to decorate castles. It was only the patrons of tea-taste who preferred a more understated style and continued use simple ink painting hanging scrolls.
By the end of the sixteenth century bold designs were no longer so popular but a luxurious decorativeness was still abundant. Artists started to paint genre scenes and some included the portrayal of Europeans in their work. It was this work which is known as Nanban Byoubu or Nanban Screens.
Missionary Art.
The Jesuits were the single significant influence on western style arts in Japan as they adopted a systematic approach. St. Francis Xavier brought with him pictures of the Virgin with Jesus on her knee and an Annunciation which were described in letters to Rome.
There are reports as early as 1565 of works of art being commissioned in Japan (McCall). Xavier had shown two pictures of the Madonna and the Madonna and Child to Shimazu Takahisa, the Satsuma Daimyo and his elderly mother who loved them so much she requested that copies be made. The small imported paintings were used to preach and for worship. Paintings representing the Madonna and child, Salvator Mundi and saints all painted in the Flemish style which was so popular in Portugal then were imported into Japan. It was expensive to buy and transport the paintings to Japan though, and as the missionaries spread in Japan it wasn't long before the demand for devotional paintings exceeded the imported supply and it became obvious that local production of art would be beneficial. After 1584 there were no reports of paintings arriving in Japan apart from the Kyushu Embassy which brought back paintings such as the portrait of the Pope, a portrait of Hasekura Rokuemon in European costume in prayer before a crucifix and a full length figure of one of the Japanese envoys in Samurai dress with his dog in a room in a venetian building.
Annual letters to Europe by the Jesuits in Kyushu praised the success of the painting schools to the extent that it was difficult for them to distinguish between the originals and the copies. The over enthusiastic tone of the letters do suggest, however, that the reports were sometimes embellished to try and get more financial support from Europe. Regardless of this, Nicoloa was undoubtedly successful in training his convert students in the western style. This started off as being influenced by the Flemish school (Antwerp) and later (1560s-70s) emulated Italian Renaissance style which was developed in Europe by painters such as Martin de Vos in Flanders. (McCall)
In 1576 the Mission Superior, Father Francisco Cabral, requested a European painter to be sent to Japan and finally Giovanni Nicolao (b.1560) arrived in 1583. His arrival was preceded by Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) in 1579, the missionary visitator who had the idea of art schools in the seminaries. In 1580 seminaries in Arima and Azuchi were founded where a large amount of the painting took place. The painting schools were part of the entire Jesuit education system where painters were converts who also studied Latin, music and theology. It was the first Institution in Japan where European books and artworks were kept for the purpose of study.
Secular Painting.
Valignano recognized the usefulness of producing high quality secular painting as well as religious painting. He had himself received a set of highly coveted screens by Kano Eitoku (1545-1590) from Odu Nobunaga (1534-1582). It was a surprise that Nobunaga presented these screens depicting Azuchi castle to the Jesuits when the Emperor himself was supposed to have wanted these screens. Valignano in turn presented the screens to Pope Gregory XIII in the Kyushu Embassy and copies of them were made in Rome. By presenting a Japanese leader with a western style painting on a traditional format of folding screens they would flatter the recipient as well as expose them to Western culture and thus Christianity. He realized that the survival of the Jesuit Mission relied in the good will of it's hosts and so secular painting became a precious commodity of negotiation. The Jesuits therefore encouraged secular painting whose function as primarily pragmatic and not aesthetic. Very often religious messages were concealed in apparently non-religious genre paintings such as The Shepherd and his sheep which is a reference to Jesus. These kind of paintings were used for secret worship by Japanese converts to Christianity during the persecution which was to follow.
In his first visit to Japan (1579-82) Valignano instigated the Kyushu Embassy for exactly these two reasons. His plan was extremely successful in impressing the Japanese with European culture.
Four very young noblemen were sent on a trip to Spain, Portugal and Italy in 1582 to indoctrinate them with the 'glory of the Catholic church'. They were received by King Philip II and the Pope. The envoys returned in 1590 laden with all kinds of gifts and this triggered a 'Nanban fad' amongst the upper classes; nobles and feudal lords. Elements of western culture were eventually adopted into Japanese life, certain Portuguese words, pieces of clothing and food and there was even a short-lived fad of wearing crucifixes and Catholic paraphernalia. This westernization of the city of Nagasaki set it apart from the rest of Japan. So after the Kyushu Mission there was a large demand for screens depicting western things; musical instruments, jewelry, costume, maps, armor etc. There were also paintings with a Japanese theme using western techniques of shading, modeling, and individuality in portraiture such as paintings of famous Buddhist monks or Daruma.
Some of this western realism was also imported to Japan via Chinese portraiture. Nobukata is probably the most well-known Nanban artist. He painted the portrait of Nikkyo, a Nichiren priest (1552-1608). The background is void and the bust style and molding are very western. The conspicuous inscription is also Asian. This mixing of techniques shows his creative spirit. Paintings like this were not reported in the Jesuits letters to Rome which were more like propaganda for the seminaries to incur financial support from the Pope.
Nanban Byoubu.
These were also very popular with the Europeans. The Jesuits themselves were forbidden to decorate their cells with screens which indicates their popularity. Valignano commissioned many screens to made in the style of the Azuchi byoubu; A geographical representation of China to be made in Macao for a gift; A depiction of the eternal city to be made in Rome. The merchants ships arriving in Nagasaki were the most popular theme although they were produced by Kano school painters in Kyoto and elsewhere.
An undated screen from the beginning of the seventeenth century depicts the Battle of Lapanto of 1571 (color on paper, 153x362.5cm, Kousetsu Bijutsukan Kobe.) This was a popular theme with missionaries because it showed how with the strength of their God, enemies could be conquered no matter how outsized the Christian army was. The battle was between Muslim Turks and Christian troops of Don John of Austria who won despite the odds. Christ became a divine warrior fighting on God's side to win converts. This somehow legitimized colonization. It was an important Christian theme which was much copied in Japan because the images weren't overtly religious in comparison to the paintings which were imported early on.
The Lapanto screens illustrate well many of the styles which define Nanban art and which are easily listed; one unified pictorial space, perspective, shadows on the ground and modeling on the faces, costumes in correct detail portrayed under a single light source with a landscape background, the sea plotted on a grid, (western maps which were thought to be accurate were new). The representation of the world as a unified and connected place was a christian idea and was closely connected to the Christian map-makers where blank spaces equaled unchartered 'heathen' lands and thus failure. The Pope had divided the world into two between the Portuguese Jesuits and the Spanish Franciscans.
The map is paired with the battle scene showing that participation in Christianity gives access to the whole world. The portrayal of individual figures can be traced back to engravings which appeared in books in Europe and the coats of arms identifies these figures. The birds eye map of European cities such as Constantinople, Rome , Madrid and Lisbon were also copied although many of them are imaginary views. The artists often used a more Japanese style for the background and more Western style for the figures which were sometimes painted in oils on top of Japanese pigments.
Nanban screens didn't follow western pictorial composition but were like yamato-e, arranging small detailed 'scenarios'; depictions of buildings, utensils and people over the area of the screen and were probably painted by high-ranking artists such as the Kano school judging by the quality of the surviving screens. They used vivid colors with strong ink lines derived from Chinese painting. The same subject matter also appeared as decorative motifs on all kinds of objects from lacquer to metalwork, and the screen were in turn copied for generations. Nanban art was a style of art which spread outside Nagasaki being copied by lower ranking artists until it faded in the 1650's, thus the later dated screens seem stiffer and less interesting copies of the earlier models. Depictions of young Europeans playing musical instruments were also popular along with other imaginary scenes of western everyday life. They seem to be frozen in somewhat unnatural poses but this is probably because the European models were equally unrealistic rather than because of any particularly 'Japanese' unfamiliarity of anatomy as Rodrigues observed about Japanese painting.
It is hard to imagine how Japanese art would have changed if the Christians had been allowed to stay in Japan. Would it have sped up the process of Europeanization which was to happen in the Meiji period much influenced by the thoughts of men such as Shiba Kokan and Ryouma Sakamoto? As it was, Nanban art had comparatively little effect on the face of Japanese art as an art movement and is mentioned in passing in art history books, but it is very important as the first meeting of Western and Japanese art.
Nanban art did offer Japan a view of the world which up until that time was thought to compromise of Chinese, Siamese and Japanese domains. Blaeu's map, which was brought back by the Kyushu Mission, replaced Gyogi style conceptual maps. The accurateness of the western style maps were useful for defense. These maps had Europe in the center and so offered a new 'other' as an alternative to the Chinese model. This in turn added to the formation of a separate identity against which to measure themselves and a reevaluation of China as being the cultural center of the world. It brought an alternative form of representation to the islands and with that new concepts and customs which were absorbed into everyday life. Nanban paintings documented events in Kyushu and so were informative for the rest of Japan.
Nanban art manifested itself in many different ways. It began with the importing of a few small religious paintings in the Flemish and Italian styles and then became art produced in Japan according to these models (because of the difficulty in importing art to meet the demand from the seminaries who needed art to communicate their religious beliefs) After the Kyushu Embassy Japanese artists started producing screens depicting western life and the events in Nagasaki. These screens mixed fact and fiction as well as Japanese and Western modes of representation. Elements of these screens became motifs for decoration on various everyday objects; at the same time Portuguese words were being adopted into the everyday life of the people of Nagasaki, the idea of 'western' was being exoticised. Many of these objects were popular with the Jesuits and were made for export. Imaginary screens show European churches as Asian or Chinese style temples and illustrate the move towards a modern world view. It was truly the precedent for the huge influx of foreign influence which was to shape Japan as we know it today.


Tanya Grassley. April 1997