Hercules Asiaticus: Inventing, Popularizing, and Reframing Images of St. Francis Xavier between Europe and East Asia

“Portrait of a saint”, 16th or 17th century, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, Japan © National Institutes for Cultural Heritage Source: ColBase: Integrated Collections Database of the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, Japan, https://colbase.nich.go.jp/collection_items/tnm/C-693?locale=en

This project continues the work pursued previously by Dr. Jonathan Greenwood on the cultic representations of Francis Xavier (1506–1552) before, during, and after the process of his canonization in 1622.     

The project investigates the growth of the fama sanctitatis of St. Francis Xavier with respect to his initial characterization as the precursor of the Jesuit missionaries in China and the “Apostle of the East.” As the body of the saint left the island of Shangchuan for Goa, the island became a liminal space. On the one hand, Shangchuan housed the holy body of Xavier right after his death. For this reason, for a few years following Xavier’s death, European Jesuit missionaries and merchants prayed at Xavier’s burial site, and some travelers took soil from there for curative purposes. On the other hand, the island became gradually less relevant after the translatio of his body to Goa. While in Goa Xavier became a local saint, as widely shown by recent scholarship, in China his cult was less prominent. As a result, as of the mid-17th century, Xavier’s first burial place fell into oblivion and was then “rediscovered” only in 1688 by Fr. Filippo Felice Carrocci S.J. (1646–1695). The paradoxical nature of the island became by then even more evident. Shangchuan was both a safe “door” to China, miraculously spared from the infamous typhoons since the death of Xavier, and a wild, deserted, and unhospitable place where Xavier exhaled his last breath amid unspeakable adversities. At the same time, Jesuit missionaries who successfully reached the Chinese mainland since the late-16th century mentioned Xavier as their illustrious predecessor. For instance, on the frontispiece of the 1615 edition of the famous De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, a Latin translation of Fr. Matteo Ricci S.J.’s (1552–1610) journal by Fr. Nicolas Trigault S.J. (1577–1628), Francis Xavier appears next to Ricci, portraying Xavier as a forerunner of the Jesuit missions in China.

Before his canonization, miraculous tales associated with depictions of Xavier emerged in the processes undertaken both in Europe and Asia. After his official canonization, numerous theatrical plays were performed across Europe representing Xavier as an exceptional missionary in Asia, who died heroically consumed by his monumental missionary efforts. As shown by recent scholarship, between 1671 and 1672, in the city of Olomouc, in Moravia, a play was performed associating Hercules and Xavier, defining him as ‘Hercules Asiaticus’, the Hercules of Asia. In Rome, in 1679, the painting by Carlo Maratta (1625–1713) depicting the death of Xavier in Shangchuan and his “buona morte” was completed and later placed in the Chiesa del Gesù, where it is still located. In the 17th century Philippines, ivory artworks depicting Xavier were produced, popularized, and then exported across various commercial routes. In Japan, depictions of Xavier were produced between the mid-16th century and the 17th century. The multifarious ways in which Xavier was depicted, from plays to medals, from prints to paintings, provide us with important evidence of his worldwide popularity.

On the basis of this rich iconographic tapestry, this project will provide an insight into the textual, performative and visual representations of the very last moments of Francis Xavier in the island of Shangchuan (Sancian/Sanciano/Sanchão). In doing so, it will encompass the complex historiography related to Eurasian exchanges in the early modern era from Xavier’s exemplary model of sanctity. It will show the efforts of various artists, scholars, and missionaries, both in Europe and in Asia, in providing multifaceted representations of Xavier as the Apostle of the East.

Researcher: Antonio De Caro

Related project: From Shangchuan to Saint