Portable oratory (The Lamentation of Christ)

South China
Early 17th century
Carved and lacquered exotic wood decorated in gold, and carved rosewood; copper fittings; oil painting on copper
50.5 x 36.5 (65 cm open) x 5 cm

A rare and highly important portable oratory with two doors in lacquered (in black) and gilded wood, set with a devotional oil painting on copper depicting The Lamentation of Christ. Echoing the form of a Namban portable oratory, the present object, which was made using typically Chinese woodwork techniques, is intended to be hung on a wall, and was made for private devotion and used in Jesuit circles for missionary work in Asia. Apart from Namban lacquerware - a Japanese production made for export to the European market and which has been subject to more in-depth study and is somewhat easier to identify from the decorative repertoire and techniques used - other lacquer productions made under Portuguese commission have remained little studied. These so-called Luso-Asian lacquers, which have resisted consensual identification of their place of production among art historians, curators and conservators, are somewhat heterogeneous in character and may be divided into two groups. While the first has been identified as Burmese in origin, the second is Chinese. The second group, composed mainly of writing boxes, fall-front writing cabinets and also carved trays, larger shrines and portable oratories such as the present one, features, in general, a similar type of carved low-relief decoration, lacquered in black and highlighted in gold. Some of the surfaces, namely the interior of the writing boxes and cabinets are lacquered in red with gilded decoration of fauna and flora of typically Chinese repertoire. The black lacquered surface of the present oratory is decorated in gold leaf with typically Chinese floral and animal motifs - long-tailed birds, phoenixes, peacocks, long-tailed squirrels, hares and peonies, all associated with the female world and probably symbolic of the Virgin. Recent analysis of the materials (lacquer, oils, etc) has identified the techniques employed in the manufacture of similar objects (namely trays), and reveals how the lacquer coating is combined with carved and gilded decoration, as seen in the stratigraphy of application or lacquer coating. While the lacquer used was identified with the Toxicodendron succedaneum, known as laccol (which grows in Southern China, Vietnam and Japan) and typically used in South China, the Chinese techniques used, namely the gold leaf decoration (called tiē jīn qī) and the limited number of coatings and the materials typical of inferior quality lacquerware for export, strongly suggest a South Chinese origin for these pieces.

               Notwithstanding the unique character of the lacquered wooden frame, the most important aspect of the present portable oratory is the original oil painting on copper housed in its interior, with its dark moulded rosewood frame, probably the much appreciated Chinese zĭtán (Pterocarpus spp.). Minutely painted in vivid, bright colours, highlighted by the smooth surface of the copper sheet, the painting is reminiscent of Iberian art of the second half of the sixteenth century, namely that of Luis de Morales (ca. 1510-1586), with its morbid sensibility, capable of inducing profound meditation; qualities for which Morales was given the epithet “El Divino”. In fact, the composition of the present painting on copper - an intimate close-up of The Lamentation of Christ, where only the lower section of the cross is visible and the foreground is occupied with the figure of the Virgin supporting the dead body of her son, gently cradling his falling head with her left hand touching his cheek, flanked on her right by Saint John the Evangelist (with his incipient beard) and on her left by an angel -, is closely reminiscent of a painting by Morales of the same subject (the Virgin flanked instead by Mary Magdalene and by Saint John the Evangelist) from around 1560 and now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 2015.398).

In our painting, the Virgin, the Evangelist and the angel are shown in mourning, with crystalline tears coursing down their cheeks, while Christ’s wounds are minutely depicted, with ruby-red droplets of blood. Droplets of blood also drip down from the cross (barely visible in the composition), where Christ’s feet were once nailed. The background of typically Chinese swirling clouds, eliminates any further references to time or place, and emphasises meditational recreation of the scene, rather than rendering it as a historical narrative. The sculptural quality of the depiction as seen in Morale’s painting, deeply rooted in the Netherlandish background of his training, is equally evident in our painting, a three-dimensional quality which must have deeply puzzled and moved the Chinese audience for which this portable oratory was made. The iconography of the Virgin, soon after its introduction in China would be mistakenly identified with that of Guānyīn, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Mercy, a positive convergence exploited by the Jesuits in China, namely by Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) - one of the founding figures of the Jesuit missions in China -, who avoided The Crucifixion and other scenes of the Passion because people found them repulsive, perhaps explaining the choice for such a close-up in the present composition.

               Undoubtedly painted at one of the Jesuit missions in China, possibly Macao, which would inherit in the early years of the seventeenth century (as the lacquered frame fully testifies in its use of a Japanese model), the Japanese “school” of painting or Seminary of Painters founded by the Italian painter, engraver and sculptor Giovanni Niccolò (1563-1626) under the auspices of Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606),  the present copper is a unique, highly important testimony not only of the high quality of painting produced there, but also of the arrival of fine European paintings in the Jesuit missions in China and their use as models. In fact, and desirous to impress the Chinese literati with the superiority of European painting and their curiosity towards pictorial realism, the Jesuits urged Rome to provide the mission with oil paintings of the highest quality possible, namely masterpieces or capolavori, as Ricci stressed in his requests. Paintings from Italy and Spain would eventually find their way to China, such as one Madonna made in Rome, and one other painting depicting The Virgin and the Child after Saint Luke which reached the mission in 1599, or two large Spanish altarpieces, a Virgin of Antiquity from Seville, and one other painting depicting The Virgin and Child with Saint John, also from Spain, but via The Philippines. Fine paintings such as the present one would produce strong reactions in the Chinese observer unfamiliar with shading, one-point perspective and the naturalistic use of colour, and who would be struck by its life-like qualities. The Wanli emperor (r. 1575-1616), upon regarding an oil painting depicting Christ as Saviour of the World, is credited to have exclaimed that - “This is a living Buddha!” - undoubtedly on account of its sculptural quality.

Left unsigned, the authorship of the present painting on copper is difficult to ascertain, most of all because of the limited survival of similar examples made at the Jesuit mission in China. Yet, certain facial features such as the depiction of the ears, the triangular space between the eyebrows and the arched-shape of the thin eyebrows, are similar to those in an oil on copper (23 x 17 cm) depicting the Salvator Mundi, dated 1597 and signed “Sacam Iacobus” or Jacobo Niwa, in the University of Tokyo (inv. A100:1649). Somewhat superior in quality when compared to the only known work by Yu Wenhui, the Macanese Jesuit painter known as Emanuel Pereira (1575-1633) who was probably Niwa’s assistant at some point, the present painting is reminiscent of the painting style of Jacobo Niwa (or Ni Yicheg, 1579 - after 1630s), himself a pupil of Niccolò’s Seminary of Painters. Faced with Pereira’s shortcomings, Ricci requested in 1601 a painter to be sent from Japan. On arrival in Macao, Niwa painted two pictures for the new church of Saint Paul, travelling to Beijing the following year to paint other works for Jesuit churches in the imperial city. In the following years Niwa travelled back and forth, fulfilling other documented painting commissions until his death. Highly sought after for his painting skills, eventually even by the Chinese emperor himself, Niwa, born in Japan of a Japanese mother and a Chinese father, mastered both the subtle European-style brushstroke as learned from Niccolò and practised by the anonymous Japanese painters who worked at the Seminary of Painters in Japan faithfully copying devotional engravings, and also the traditional Chinese portraiture method, as seen from the aforementioned iconographical features present in our painting.

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