Important Cultural PropertyPortable shrine depicting birds and flowers in maki-e lacquer

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  • Height 61.5 cm, width 39.5 cm (closed), depth 5.0 cm
  • Azuchi-Momoyama period, 16th century
  • Kyushu National Museum
  • H5

This is a shrine made to hold Christian paintings. It is an example of a nanban lacquerware product made in Japan during the Momoyama period and exported to Europe. Production of nanban lacquerware began in the mid-sixteenth century, when Christian missionaries, mainly from Portugal, commissioned lacquerware craftspeople in Kyoto to make ceremonial objects such as sacred rice cake boxes, lecterns, and shrines. It is believed that they brought these ceremonial objects back to their home countries, subsequently ordering more to be made and transported over directly. Countless lacquerware products thus made their way across the sea as goods for trade, along with furniture such as chests and cabinets.

This shrine recently returned to Japan from Europe, and is currently the largest of its kind in the nation. It is topped by a sloping karahafu gable, and has double doors in front that open to reveal the sacred painting inside. Both the outer and inner faces of both doors are decorated extensively in gold and silver maki-e lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlay. Each face features geometric medallions framing arabesque, bird, and flower motifs. It houses an oil painting on a bronze plaque, depicting the Virgin Mary watching over a sleeping baby Jesus, with Saint Joseph on her right. To her left is St. John, holding a cross in his right hand and placing his left index finger over his mouth. The Latin inscription at the bottom of the painting reads, “Ego dormio et cor meum vigilat” (I sleep, but my mind is awake). This work, which combines excellent lacquer techniques with lavish decorations, serves as a fine example of nanban lacquerware, which in itself paints a picture of international exchange during the European Age of Discovery.