Skip to content

McMullen Exhibit Looks at Fascinating East-West Exchange

An item from the forthcoming "Portugal, Jesuits, and Japan: Spiritual Beliefs and Earthly Goods" exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art.

By Rosanne Pellegrini | Chronicle Staff

Published: Feb. 14, 2013

In Japan, they were called nanban-jin — “southern barbarians”: European missionaries and merchants who arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries, bringing with them a host of influences, from the artistic to the religious.

A groundbreaking exhibition of rare nanban art opening this Saturday at the McMullen Museum of Art will examine this period of East-West cultural exchange, and the transformations in Japan’s political, cultural, artistic, technological, and linguistic spheres through the presence of the Portuguese and the introduction of Christianity.

“Portugal, Jesuits, and Japan: Spiritual Beliefs and Earthly Goods,” on display through June 2, highlights an era of Japanese internationalism that gave way to Japanese insularity following the expulsion of the Portuguese. The viewer travels through the complex landscape of religious ideas, customs, and artistic styles that typified the nanban period as an age of exploration.

The museum will formally celebrate the new exhibition with an opening reception and special evening viewing from 7-9:30 p.m. on Feb. 18 in Devlin 101.  

“Boston College, one of the premier Jesuit universities in the world, is pleased to collaborate with the government of Portugal and Portuguese institutions on this groundbreaking exhibition examining — through the display of magnificent nanban works of art — the cultural, spiritual, and artistic exchange among Portuguese, Jesuits, and Japanese in the ‘Age of Exploration,’” said McMullen Museum Director and Professor of Art History Nancy Netzer.

The exhibition comprises 70 works; central to the narrative are seven magnificent folding screens that illustrate Japanese encounters with visiting Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries. Examples of the objects depicted on the screens also will be on display: elaborately decorated Japanese furniture, lacquerware, and military equipment; Indian and Chinese ceramics, textiles, and furniture; and paintings by Jesuit-trained Japanese artists. In addition to rare European and Japanese maps, the artifacts and screens tell a fuller story than that documented in contemporary texts.

Organizers selected iconic works from institutions and private collections in the US, including the Peabody Essex Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lenders from Portugal include the Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis, Oporto; Museu de São Roque, Lisbon; Diocese de Coimbra, Sé Nova; and Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, Lisbon, and many private collectors.

Said Paulo Cunha Alves, consul general of Portugal in Boston, “’Portugal, Jesuits, and Japan’ will be a one-of-a-kind exhibition in America. The beauty and the rareness of the works of art displayed, some of them coming from public and private collections in Portugal, will attract the attention of both scholars and admirers of Asian art.

“The exhibition explores the profound bonds between commerce and religion at the time of the first globalization promoted by merchants, missionaries, and noblemen at the service of the Portuguese Crown.”

“Portugal, Jesuits, and Japan” has been underwritten by Boston College, the Patrons of the McMullen Museum, Leslie and Peter Ciampi, the Camões Institute of Cooperation and Language/Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Portugal, the Consulate General of Portugal in Boston, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, with additional support from the Luso-American Foundation, and the Japan Foundation, NY.  

Research by international scholars from a range of disciplines will be published in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Comprised of eight essays and color reproductions of all works in the exhibition, the catalogue will be published by the McMullen Museum, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, and will be available for purchase from the Boston College Bookstore.

Docent-led tours are available Sundays from 2–2:45 p.m. Feb. 24 through June 2. Tours also arranged upon request by calling ext.2-8587. Exhibition details, directions, parking and program information are available at the McMullen website.