The Global Itineraries of the Martyrs of Japan: Early Modern Religious Networks and the Circulation of Images across Asia, Europe, and the Americas  


Lázaro Pardo de Lago, The Franciscan Martyrs of Japan from 1597, 1630, Convento Franciscano de La Recoleta, Cuzco, Peru, taken from The Arts in Latin America 1492–1820. Philadelphia 2006.

This project investigates the images of Japan martyrs with a close examination of the 26 Christian victims of persecution, who were crucified in 1597 and beatified thirty years later. Concentrating on the most important globally circulating artworks and iconographies, the development and negotiation of the martyrs’ saintly status by visual means is examined.

The negotiation of the Japan martyrs’ status needs to be considered within the evolving discourse on martyrdom in post-Tridentine Catholic Europe, one formed by heavy conflicts with Protestant reformers, who produced their own martyrs, and the rediscovery of the Roman catacombs in the late 16th century. The latter led to a revival of the early Christian cult of the martyrs in Catholic Europe, a tradition in which the veneration of new martyrs came to be understood. The fact that the martyrs of Asian descent among those crucified in 1597 became the first blesseds originating from territories encountered by European polities in the early modern period led to complex processes of appropriation of these martyrs across the continents. Special attention is directed to the rivalry between religious orders involved in the missionary enterprise in Japan, which mirrored the conflict between the Iberian kingdoms over the lucrative China-Japan trade and reflects in the iconography of the victims of persecution by the Japanese authorities.

This project encompasses all the other GLOBECOSAL-projects geographically and conceptually. Geographically, because it reaches across the oceans to examine the devotion to these martyrs in Asia, the Americas, and Europe. The focal points of this project are located in East Asia, where the martyrs’ veneration, first revolving around relics, began; in the Americas, as a great number of artworks depicting the Japan martyrs were created there; and in Rome, because this is where many of the artworks were destined, executed, and commissioned. This project embraces the other projects conceptually since the case of the Japan martyrs is ambiguously located between ‘success’ and ‘failure’. Indeed, the 26 beatified martyrs crucified in 1597 were the only ones among the myriads of victims from the Japan mission to obtain partial papal recognition of sainthood before 1700, and their canonization did not occur until the 19th century. The visual representations of these martyrs are therefore key in uncovering the factors contributing to ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in early modern saint-making.

Researcher : Raphaèle Preisinger