AN EXTREMELY IMPORTANT AND RARE JAPANESE SAWASA RELIQUARY CRUCIFIX CROSS
Momoyama-period, late 16th century/early 17th century
Alloy of red copper, gold, silver and arsenic with black lacquer and gold.
H. 19.5 x W. 14 x D. 2.6 cm
The cross on one side has the crucified Christ with the crown of thorns on his head. Above is the sacred monogram INRI i.e. Iesus Nasareus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nasareth King of the Jews) Below, the pillar at which Jesus was scourged and the skull with crossbones signifying Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. To his left and right two Implements of Passion, the hammer used to nail Christ to the cross and the pincers used to remove the nails when Christ was taken down from the cross.
On the reverse of the cross, under a crown is the figure of the Virgin as the Immaculate Conception standing on the disc of the moon and holding the Child. On both sides are flying angels and there as well as at her feet the flowers of the Japanese apricot (Prunus Mume), ume in Japanese, a symbol of beauty, purity and longevity, being flowers of winter. At the foot of the cross the figure of John. By unscrewing the knob at the bottom the two sides hinge open revealing several compartments for holding small relics.
The crucifix dates from the brief decades during which Christianity was tolerated in feudal Japan. They were produced for the Portuguese stationed in Asia but certainly also for Japanese converted to Christianity by the Jesuits. Possibly the Jesuit priests gave them as diplomatic gifts to the powerful daimyõ (warlord) and the samurai in his court they had managed to convert to Christianity. Conversions had started with the arrival of the Jesuit Father Francis Xavier (1506-1552) in 1549 in Japan at Kagoshima, the south-most province of Kyushu. The priest’s holy virtue and strength of character deeply impressed the daimyõ of Hirado and he and many of his samurai were converted to Christianity.
After a year Francis Xavier returned to Portugal but his work was successfully continued by Jesuit priests. The Japanese adopted not only Christianity but also Portuguese fashion in dress, in smoking tobacco in clay pipes and in sporting crucifixes and rosaries as fashionable accessories.
When also the Spanish Franciscans arrived in Japan they came into competition with the Portuguese Jesuits over both spiritual and commercial concerns. Christianity became involved in chaotic domestic and foreign intrigue, backing a revolt by Christian samurai against the Shogun. This resulted in a number of edicts by the Shogun prohibiting Christianity and finally the total expulsion of the Portuguese and Spaniards from Japan in 1639. Afterwards only the Dutch were allowed to remain in Japan, on the small island of Deshima in the bay of Nagasaki, on the condition that they did not import Bibles, other Christian literature or objects or even practised their religion in public.
Apart from two examples in the Victoria & Albert Museum (one illustrated in Sawasa, Japanese export art in black and gold, 1650-1800, pg. 24), one in the Tokyo National Museum and one in the Soares dos Reis Museum in Porto, only about three or four more are known to be in Portuguese private collections.