A LARGE JAPANESE NAMBAN LACQUER ARQUETA COFFER FOR THE PORTUGUESE MARKET
Kyoto, Momoyama-period, late 16th century
In Hinoki cypress lacquered in black (urishi), decorated in gold lacquer (hiramaki-é), inlaid with mother of pearl (raden) and gilt copper mounts, three panels separated by geometric bands on the lid and body, showing flying long-tailed birds, a lion, butterflies and a tortoise amongst dense foliage of trees, bamboos and flowering plants.
H. 42 x W. 87.3 x D. 30 cm
Already in the late 16th century, several are documented in European royal collections. Later in the 17th century, after the Portuguese had been expelled from Japan in 1630 and the Dutch VOC traders were the only Europeans allowed in Japan, the style of the Japanese export lacquer boxes and coffers changed, becoming more pictorial in design, executed in gold lacquer (hiramaki-e and takamaki-e) on a plain black lacquered ground without separate panels, little or no inlay of mother of pearl and no longer with the semi-cylindrical lid (see: Japanese Export Lacquer, Oliver Impey & Christiaan Jörg, 2005). This Namban lacquered wood coffer of long rectangular form and semi-cylindrical lid is an example of the early type of Japanese export lacquers made for the Portuguese.
These larger coffers were called Arqueta and unlike the smaller boxes had carrying handles on the sides and all corners protected by gilt metal fittings. The Portuguese were the first Europeans in Japan and brought new furniture shapes which gave rise to a new type of Japanese lacquer-ware inspired by European models. The travelling Portuguese Jesuits and later the Spanish Franciscans missionaries ordered many small liturgical objects, such as altarpiece, crucifix, oratory and needed boxes or arqueta to transport or store these things, their other belongings and their garments. But more importantly, these boxes and coffers were among the first examples of Japanese export art to reach the (royal) European markets.