Some Japanese martyrs celebrated in Mexico?

During some restoration works in the former Franciscan church in Cuernavaca, Mexico mural paintings were discovered under coats of painting. The church walls were covered with scenes representing the martyrdom of 26 Christians put to death at Nagasaki on February 6, 1597 in the aftermath of the foundering of the Spanish galleon San Felipe off the coast of Shikoku. A chain of intrigues and blunders led to the confiscation of the rich cargo of the galleon and the condemnation of 26 Christians who were arrested in Kyōto, priests and faithful, Japanese and Westerners, adults and children, Jesuits and Franciscans. This scene as well as others set on the different walls of the church, follows rather closely the written sources describing the execution.

Crucifixion existed in Japan before the introduction of Christianity: since the Heian period (794-1185) it was the way to execute thieves. The convicts were first mutilated and exhibited around town before being tied (not nailed) on a cross. Two executioners had to cross their spears in front the eyes of the convicts and then spear them on each side of the thorax. This is this precise moment that the mural painting has illustrated. Above the martyrs the artists painted a fire in the form of a column, which is evidence of the Franciscan origin of the painting. The Franciscans in Japan were adamant about the supernatural event that occurred at the moment of execution: some “columns of fire” appeared in the sky. The artists in Mexico gave a direct translation of this event, which has been denied by the Jesuits.

The diary of a noble Aztec bears witness to the fact that news of the martyrdom had reached Mexico at the end of December 1597. The following year the Franciscans carried the relics of the martyrs to Mexico. The Franciscan convent of Cuernavaca was situated on the road from Acapulco, port of arrival of the Manila galleon, and the capital city of New Spain. The Franciscans whose destination was the Philippines or Japan had all spent some time in the convent of Cuernavaca, which is the reason why the martyrs are celebrated there. Moreover, the Franciscan friar Felipe de Jesús (1572-1597) was among the martyrs: he is the first martyr of Mexico.

Sylvie Morishita