Ex oriente sanctitas? Images in Unsuccessful Beatification Causes from Iberian Asia

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, La venerable madre Jerónima de la Fuente, 1620, 160 x 110 cm, oil on canvas © Museo Nacional del Prado

This subproject examines the functions of images in beatification campaigns launched in Southeast and South Asia, which didn’t succeed at all or not until the nineteenth century. By focusing on so-called ‘unsuccessful’ candidates for sainthood in the Asian Catholic Church, this project seeks to identify the factors leading to ‘failure’ within the construction of a saint’s persona.

Studies on sainthood in early modern Catholicism in Asia have displayed a fundamental asymmetry, ranging between the large literature on exemplary figures like St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), and the little studied cults of numerous martyrs and servants of God, whose veneration was limited to local devotions. While progress has been made in the study of the visual adaptations undertaken by the Jesuit missions to East Asia, we still know little about the visual artworks commissioned and employed by other religious orders and actors on the same continent. Almost nothing has been written on the role of images in the negotiation of sanctity in South and Southeast Asia. In fact, the very history of canonisation processes in that area has yet to be developed vigorously. Most of the literature focuses on Catholic martyrdom in Azuchi–Momoyama and early Edo Japan. While many martyrs were eventually proclaimed blesseds and even saints, this did not occur until the nineteenth century. As a result, there are many and robust cases of unsuccessful processes of beatification and canonization. A striking example is that of Marcello Mastrilli SJ († 1637), who promoted visual representations of St. Francis Xavier in Goa, before becoming himself the object of a veneration sustained by images and various types of objects. In this category we find other missionaries from Europe, including João de Brito († 1693, beat. 1853, can. 1947), Rodolfo Acquaviva SJ († 1583, beat. 1893), the two martyrs of Aceh Denis de la Nativité and Redento da Crus OCD († 1638, beat. 1900), as well as the first martyr in Ming China, Francisco Fernández de Capillas OP (†1648, beat. 1909, can. 2000). Yet, native Asian martyrs were part of this history of failed beatifications and canonisations as evident in the case of the Vietnamese catechist Andrea from Phu Yen († 1644, beat. 2000). Men did not have a monopoly in the determination of sainthood as seen in the failed process for Jerónima de la Asunción OSC (1555-1630), one of the most influential women in the development of Catholicism in the Philippines and Macao. In addition to successful and failed beatification and canonisation causes, the informal veneration of regular priests was rather common, as shown by the devotion to Pietro Avitabile (1590-1640) and Francesco Manco (†1646), two little known Italian Theatines active in South India.

Researcher : Wei Jiang