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  • Dickie Zebregs

Namban: Art for the Barbarians

The Barbarians were Europeans coming to Japan in the 16th century aboard their ships along the southern China Sea trading routes. When the Portuguese arrived in eastern waters in 1497, after Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and crossed the Indian Ocean to Calicut, it was only a matter of time before they would reach the land of the Rising Sun. In 1543 the first Portuguese traders and sailors set foot ashore in Japan, which marked the start of a beautiful cross-pollination of style and splendour in art.

Namban art refers to Japanese art influenced by the contact between Japan and Europe. Literally Namban (or Nanban) means “Southern Barbarian” which stand for the people from Europe, as seen from Japanese perspective. The Japanese thought the European ways and customs were rude and barbaric, and ships always came from the Southern sea-routes, hence the name. The most beautiful example of Namban art is the lacquerware which can be recognized by the use of urushi-lacquer, adapted to European taste and design, decorated with maki-e gold powder and mother-of-pearl inlays, raden. Often floral motifs were used, but also much rarer animal and bird designs are known, which can be seen in A large Japanese Namban lacquer Arqueta coffer for the Portuguese market (see image above) from our collection. The lavish lacquer was in fact the first exported item from Japan to Europe, but not for commercial purposes only.

How it's made Urushi lacquer is the base for manufacturing Japanese lacquer items. The raw material of this lacquer is sap obtained from the namesake tree. Layers of sap are applied on a wooden base with consolidation and polishing intervals in between. The result is a black shiny surface with a gentle texture. Golden motives created with gold particles (Maki-e technique) and mother of pearl inlays (Raden technique) are then used to liven up the surface.

There was a specialist market for objects with liturgical use like pyxes, triptych shrines and lecterns marked with the IHS monogram of the Society of the Jesuits. These pieces were probably made for use in Japan, for Europe and South America (Navarra). Also, other religious groups like the Spanish Franciscans, Dominicans and other orders may have also been involved in this specialist trade until their expulsion from Japan in 1624. But the lacquerwares were not always religious, for the exotic Namban art was in high demand amongst the wealthy Portuguese as well. They, and later also the Spanish, ordered Japanese craftsmen to manufacture European objects such as coffers, writing desks (image) and other objects.

Although the Japanese regarded European taste as Barbaric, there was possibly also Namban-lacquer production for the domestic market in Japan. A chest that was previously sold by us (see image below), shows the typical European design that was used for the export chests, but is decorated with Mon-symbols, the Japanese equivalent of a European coat-of-arms. Every Mon identifies a Japanese family, clan or individual, which arguably indicates that this chest was made for domestic use.

An extremely rare Japanese Namban lacquer coffer for the domestic market, late 16th century

Officially, Namban art was made until the first quarter of the 17th century, because the Jesuits and other Catholic orders were expelled from Japan. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) got the monopoly on commerce with Japan and revolutionized the trade in valuables from the archipelago, which resulted in a wide range of porcelain, lacquer, textiles, paintings and ivory carvings that are often also called Namban art amongst professionals, collectors and dealers. These objects, that were almost industriously made and traded up until the 19th century, are splendid and beautiful as well, but perhaps lack the mystery of the early age of discovery and the treasures that first came to Europe from far away shores.

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