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Rare Christian painting from late 16th century on display in Yokohama

JIJI

A Christian painting at a museum in eastern Japan is highly likely to have been created in the late 16th century, when persecution of Christians in Japan was on the rise, a study by a research institute has shown.

The painting, part of a collection at the museum Sawada Miki Kinenkan, in the town of Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture, is one of the oldest Christian works of art in Japan, a person familiar with the matter said.

“This is a valuable historical material that shows how early Japanese Christians practiced their beliefs,” one expert said.

The scroll, created in sumi black ink on a piece of washi (traditional Japanese paper) 22 cm high and 320 cm long, has been on display at the Yokohama History Museum in Yokohama since Nov. 23.

It depicts 15 scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, including the Annunciation and the Passion. It also includes descriptions in Japanese of prayers in Latin.

People in the painting wear hakama pants, and some carry what appear to be swords.

It was apparently produced based on a religious painting from the West and used by Japanese Christians at the time as a devotional item. Japanese characters written at the end of the painting suggest it was created by a believer in 1592.

By using radiocarbon technology to date the washi, the research institute found that the paper was made between 1556 and 1633.

“This is the first discovery in Japan of a painting depicting both a Christian worship scene and words of prayer,” said Osamu Inoue, deputy head of the Yokohama museum. “Also judging from the font type used for the characters, this is one of the oldest Christian paintings in Japan.”

The black-ink painting, produced on low-grade paper, has “a common touch,” said Inoue, who took part in the study.

After Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549, warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued an order to expel Christians in 1587 and the Tokugawa shogunate in the Edo Period banned the religion in 1612.

Sawada Miki Kinenkan is known for its collection of items from “hidden Christians.” The museum found the Christian painting among its holdings, but it does not know where the work came from.