Yuki no Santa Maria (Our Lady of the Snows)

Fragment of a painting kept at the Twenty-six martyrs Museum, Nagasaki, Japan

It is a mere fragment of larger painting made by an artist trained in the school of art founded in Nagasaki at the end of the XVIth century. This painting was discovered in a family of descendants of Christians in the 1960. What remains of the painting was set as a kakejiku: it was glued on a paper so as to be rolled down for storage and rolled up for use and exhibition. Obviously damaged over the years it had been restored with whatever was available. The Virgin Mary with hands clasped in prayers slightly bends her head probably towards her son who has now disappeared.

A manuscript written in Nagasaki and now kept in the Vatican Library includes an engraving which resemblance with this painting. The Virgin Mary bearing a crown, her hands clasped bends her head towards the Child Jesus peacefully sleeping on a cushion. The only difference lies in the headgear of the Virgin Mary: the veil in the engraving has disappeared in the Japanese painting. Instead the artist represented long, lustrous hair such as Japanese women enjoyed at the time. A small detail may be considered as a hint of the link between the two artworks: in both the left cheek of the Virgin has a mole!

The Jesuits distributed widely paintings and engravings among converts. However the faithful used to receive engravings whereas the paintings were first intended for the embellishment of churches. This work of art has been found in a family of “hidden Christians”, descendants of Christians who refused to join the Church as of the 19th century? We may surmise that an ancestor of this family had been an influential member of a group of Christians, maybe the head of a brotherhood, to whom the Jesuits entrusted this painting at the closing of the churches in 1614. It is a tribute to the care with which the Japanese Christians transmitted every object linked with the first missionaries. The painting appears briefly in Martin Scorcese’s movie Silence.

Sylvie Morishita