A 'hidden Christian' painting returns to Japan
Picture may date from Christian persecution era
Pictures courtesy Nagasaki archdiocese
Japan’s prohibition of Christianity began in the early 1600s and raged on for centuries. A painting of the Virgin Mary which is thought to date from the earliest days of this punitive era has finally – after a long and winding journey – found its way back to Japan.
In a ceremony last month at Nagasaki’s Nakamachi Church, Father Georges Colomb, Superior General of the Foreign Missions Society of Paris, presented the painting to Archbishop Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki.
The painting, which measures about 42 by 60 cms, portrays the Virgin Mary with St Francis of Assisi and St Anthony of Padua below her, and St Clare of Assisi and two other holy women in the lower foreground.
Encircling the Virgin is a Franciscan cord belt, or cincture, with three visible knots symbolizing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Those knots may also be an oblique reference to one of Japan’s underground Christian groups from the prohibition period, the Community of the Cords.
The picture’s journey has been an eventful one.
In March, 1865, French Missionary Bernard-Thadée Petitjean was contacted by members of a hitherto unknown Christian community in Urakami, Nagasaki, which had secretly maintained its faith despite the centuries of prohibition.
Once contact was made with these “hidden Christians,” a church was established in Urakami. Its first priest was Fr Jean Poirier MEP. It was one of the group who presented him with the picture.
When Bishop Petitjean departed to participate in the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), Fr Poirier gave him the picture to take with him. It was then passed on to Fr Poirier’s uncle in France, who was also a priest.
In 1908 the picture moved again, from Poirier’s uncle to a Capuchin friar, who took it to his society’s headquarters in Paris where it remained for over a century.
At some point Bishop Petitjean alluded to this picture in one of his letters, but by that time he had no knowledge of its whereabouts.
In 2009, a diligent researcher tracked the painting down in Paris and reported the fact to Archbishop Takami. Finally, in October last year, the archbishop saw it in person during a trip to France.
The return of the picture was agreed after Archbishop Takami made a request to Fr Colomb through the MEP Provincial of Japan, Olivier Chegaray.
While Archbishop Takami stresses that “an expert opinion is necessary” to pinpoint the exact age of the painting, he says: “It is significant that its return comes just before next year’s 150th anniversary of the discovery of the hidden Christians in Nagasaki. This is important to me.”
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