Discuss the Rise and Fall of Namban Art During the so Called Christian Century

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  • Topic: Japan, Nanban trade, Japanese art
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  • Published : January 3, 2006
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In this essay I will be discussing the rise and fall of Namban Art during the Christian century in the history of Japanese Art. I will concentrate on three essential elements in order to discuss this topic. Firstly, what is Namban art exactly? Secondly, I will briefly look at the history of the Christian century. Finally, I will relate the rise and fall of Namban Art to the rise and fall of Christianity during this period.

What is Namban Art. The word namban itself translates as "Southern Barbarians". The term relates to the type of art which was produced as a reaction to the arrival of foreigners on Japanese soil. In the discussion of Namban art I have broken it down into two categories. Firstly, there is the type of art which corresponds directly to the Christian faith being promoted at this time. In this case, there were reproductions of European paintings and decorative objects such as altars for example. The other category of Namban art would be secular observations and consist of folding screens depicting the coming and goings of the foreigners for example. However, one cannot discuss Namban art properly without understanding the history of the time. This is because at the time art and society were intrinsically linked.

The Christian century can be roughly dated from 1543 – 1639. In 1563 the first Portuguese ship landed on Japanese soil in Kyushu. With the Portuguese came a more sinister threat in the eyes of many Japanese – Christianity. The Jesuit Francis Xavier arrived in Japan in 1549 and his arrival can be seen as the true start of the Christian century. It has been said that ‘although his stay in Japan only lasted two years, the results of his missionary work were to be felt in the country for almost a hundred years.' Christianity became popular in Japan quickly .By the time of the reunification of Japan under Oda Nobunaga towards the end of the sixteenth century, Christianity had already found many supporters. With the steady rise in number of converts to Christianity the demand for religious artwork increased also. The demand became so great that Europe could not supply enough and consequently workshops were established in Japan to create religious works. Christianity continued to grow thanks to the support of Nobunaga's successor Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi knew the benefits of trading with the Portuguese and he also realized that trade and the Jesuits were linked. For this reason Hideyoshi tolerated Christianity even though he had issued a decree prohibiting Christianity. It was the following Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who enforced this. The threat of the Christian religion had simply become too great. Progressively more restrictions were being placed on Christianity and trade. In a reversal of Hideyoshi's values, it was decided that the threat of Christianity overrode trade. So the Portuguese, with whom they did the most business, were effectively banished from Japan. In 1639 all trading with the Portuguese and other nations was ceased with one exception – the Dutch. As the Dutch had never made any attempts to promote Christianity they were allowed to remain in the port of Nagasaki. Thus began the period of Japan's almost total isolation from the rest of the world.

There is an undeniable correspondence between the rise and fall of Christianity and the rise and fall of Namban art. As has been stated before, I have broken down Namban art into two categories: one influenced by Christianity and the other which was secular observations of the time. Lets consider the Christian influence on Namban art. I have already mentioned that demand for religious works from Europe became so great that it was necessary to set up workshops in Japan. It is known that ‘Japanese artists were copying European paintings as early as 1565.' It wasn't until 1583 that Giovanni Nicolao, an Italian artist and priest, came to Japan to teach western art techniques to the Japan seminarians. The works produced by native artists working in a...
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