From Shangchuan to Saint: Images of Francis Xavier and the Growth of his Global Cult, 1552-1640

Attributed to Pedro Kano, Portrait of Francis Xavier, early 17th century, 60 x 50 cm, water colours on paper, Kobe City Museum, Kobe, Japan taken from Fernando García Gutiérrez, San Francisco Javier en el arte de España y Oriente (Seville: Guadalquivir Ediciones, 2005), figure 218.

The project is an investigation of the cultic representations of Francis Xavier (1506-1552) before, during, and after the process of his canonization in 1622. While the Goan component has predominated the field, these images occupied worldwide spaces and places in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, raising the question of whether he could be considered a ‘global saint’ appropriated as ‘their own’ by different communities around the world so early. It will add to the already robust scholarship through analysis that ventures beyond iconography.      

Francis Xavier (1506-1552), informally called the “Apostle of the East,” was a member of the Society of Jesus, whose fame comes from his missionary work in Asia. He led the earliest Jesuit missions to Asia before his death in 1552 on the island of Shangchuan (Sancian), just off the coast of southern China. After his death, devotees recognized his sanctity, which resulted in relocating his body to Goa in 1554 and the undertaking of processes to assess his exceptionality. Recognized officially by Rome as a saint in 1622, the interim period was one of constant reassessment of his saintly reputation. Scholars have contributed extensively to our understandings of the iconography of Xavier, while emphasizing his status as a local saint of Goa. When representations are considered, the famous examples wrest much of the field’s attention. What remains to be seen are the translocal dimensions of his cult, which encompassed India along with Europe, the Americas, and much of southeastern Asia. As well, the places and spaces in which these images participated in lived religion has received scant examination. This project studies the development of his global cult through its visual culture, helping us comprehend how likenesses of Xavier contributed to his reputation of sainthood, while situating them within quotidian local devotions. The temporal scope of the project starts with his death in 1552 and continues past his canonization in 1622, ending in 1640, a year of geopolitical and religious significance in the early modern world.

Researcher: Jonathan E. Greenwood