“The Samurai and the Cross” is a Somber and Moving Display

It’s fitting that it’s in the church. The Ricci Institute’s new exhibition, “The Samurai and the Cross,” in the Manresa Gallery in St. Ignatius is quietly mournful and reverent enough to deserve services. It acts simultaneously as a crash course in 16th century Japanese history and as a sobering tribute to those who manage to live under persecution. I made my way there twice during the past week, once in the rain and once in the sun, and found that the rain suited the exhibit much better.


The exhibition space is split into four sections detailing different aspects of the relationships between Japan, Europe and Christianity. Europeans first arrived in Japan in the 1540s, bringing Catholicism in 1549. Over the next 50 years, Catholics (mostly Spanish and Portuguese Jesuits) were able to convert almost half a million people in a country of less than 20 million. Ultimately, a fairly prosperous relationship developed, especially around the port of Nagasaki. In 1610, Japanese merchants accompanied Franciscan padres across the Pacific to New Spain, which later became Mexico and then California. But in 1614, the new ruling military government, the Tokugawa shogunate, officially banned Catholicism – they saw it as a threat to the newly stable country. This was the climax of years of oppression, with the most shocking moment of this time being the 1597 crucifiction of 26 Christians at Nagasaki.


Until 1873, Christians in Japan lived in hiding. The shogunate created lists of Christians in the country and attempted to find and purge them. The bounty on the head of padres was hundreds of pieces of silver, greater than the simple 30 paid for Jesus. If caught, a Christian would be forced by torture to publicly renounce their faith by stepping on a representation of Christ, or a fumi-e (translation: “stepping on picture”). These were pieces of wood or metal, and usually, a Christian would have to face psychological manipulation with their torture at the hands of a semi-mythical Inquisitor before they committed the apostitic act.


It’s all on display in the church. We see a fumi-e, one of only twenty remaining, and the decree boards used to communicate the new rulings about religion in a country that was newly discovering the printing press. Also on display are the ceramic bowls with Christian iconography, both made in Japan and brought from China before the Christian ban. Fascinatingly, the depictions of Jesus on the ceramics is clearly Chinese. Depictions of Jesus are always interesting. They show that he has never been a literal person; by existing in various artworks as Chinese, Arabic, European and African, we are able to see that he is more like a representation of the virtuous desires of believers. We see the original texts arguing against Christianity and the inquisitorial lists of Christians in Japan.


But the artifacts with the most emotional power are the items used by Christians during the prohibition. On display is a rosary crafted from seeds and a hand drawn scroll depicting the Virgin Mary. We see the ways that Christian items would be snuck into the country disguised as Buddhist statues. There is a sense of quiet agony to this part of the exhibit; here are people who are separated by oceans from any other adherents to their belief, and are fugitives who will be tortured if they are caught practicing their religion. But they continued to do so, in a confounding and macabre display of unadulterated faith. It’s sobering to observe and consider.


“The Samurai and the Cross” will be open until March 6, Tuesdays-Fridays from 1-5 p.m.

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