A Nagasaki Courtesan with a Nanban Screen

Kobayakawa Kiyoshi Japanese

Not on view

Depicted life-size, a courtesan from the Maruyama licensed quarters in the port city of Nagasaki, is decked out in a sumptuous outer garment decorated with auspicious Chinese patterns, some associated with the New Year. Her elaborate coiffeur is adorned with a complex array of gold and silver combs and bejeweled hairpins, some with dangling ornaments. Her face is powdered, making her rouged lips stand out the same way her red undergarment contrasts with the uchikake over-robe. Her ornately woven obi sash is fashioned from expensive imported sarasa fabric. Similarly, the inner lining of her robe (or an under-kimono) also appears to be sarasa. The ring on her left hand conveys an incongruous suggestion of modernity.

She is posing in a chamber of the brothel where she works, replete with precious objects, indicating her high status in the brothel hierarchy. She stands on a red wool carpet with cross-shaped motifs. Behind her on the right is a so-called “daimyo clock” on a Chinese lacquer stand with inlaid mother-of-pearl. This type of clock was expensive, only affordable by samurai elite and no doubt a gift from a patron. It would have been used to keep track of the passing of the hours, which were correlated to the 12 signs of the Asian zodiac, as seen on the face of the clock. The red lacquer stand with sake cups is Japanese, as it most likely is a blue cut-glass vessel. On the wooden stand is a stack of round pounded-rice cakes, topped by a tangerine, which is another signal that the season is the time of the New Year. To the left is a ceramic jardiniere with an antelope design, another exotic import, holding a pair of peacock feathers.

The courtesan’s raiment and hair ornaments are gorgeous, just as the setting is lavish. But our awe at the spectacle is contradicted when we realize that she is about to make her way to an annual efumi, or “Christian icon trampling” ceremony that had been practiced in Nagasaki since the 1620s and continued until the late 1850s. The origins of this ceremony are traced by to the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s prohibition of the foreign Christian religion beginning around 1614. From the mid-sixteenth century, Jesuit missionaries proselytized in Japan, and managed to convert many daimyo (feudal chieftains) to Christianity, but they were ordered to end their mission of converting Japanese. To enforce the prohibition, anyone suspected of being a Christian was required to trample on and dishonor a fumi-e (literally, “picture to step on”), which were tablets, usually made of brass or stone, that featured a cross, or likeness of Jesus or Mary. Refusal was punishable by death.

The artist submitted the work to the Japanese Art Academy exhibition using the title Efumi ishō 絵踏衣装, which might be rendered literally, albeit inelegantly, as Garments for the Icon-Trampling Ceremony. As Christianity was banned and lost its following in Japan, the efumi ceremony lost much of its religious significance among the populace of Nagasaki and became more of a formalized annual ceremony by the late Edo period. In particular, efumi performed by courtesans of the Maruyama district eventually turned into an excuse for displaying ostentatious costumes. On the eighth day of the New Year, high-ranked courtesans, flaunting the new apparel purchased for them by wealthy patrons participated in the public ceremony.

Yet clearly the artist Kiyoshi was not content to present a bowdlerized representation of the annual event. Providing a dramatic background to the courtesan and her luxurious setting is a gold-leaf Nanban byōbu, or “Screen of the Southern Barbarians,” using the Japanese term used to refer to European—mostly Portuguese—merchants, missionaries, and their entourages (often including slaves from Africa and the Caribbean) who arrived by ship from the south. The flag on the ship shows the cross symbolizing the Jesuit mission in Japan that lasted from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth century. In a chapel in the background, a Jesuit priest in colorful robes is conducting a mass, while in another room another Jesuit prelate, seated on a folding chair, seems to be giving a sermon to samurai believers. Yet, as we examine each scene on the Nanban screen, what captures our attention is the horrific scene of a mass execution taking place, with the decapitated heads of Japanese and Christian believers who refused to repudiate their faith in Christianity by stomping on a fumi-e.

Represented here is Great Genna Martyrdom of 1622, when more than 25 missionaries as well as 30 lay men and women—including Japanese, Koreans, and Europeans—were brutally executed by decapitation and other means. Missionaries were tied to stakes in a fire pit, while samurai officials brandishing swords decapitated men, women and children from Christian families. Among spectators were Europeans, Chinese, and Africans, as well as Japanese.

With all these horrific events in mind, we can look again at the beautiful courtesan, in gorgeous raiment, about to step on the cross motif on a red carpet in her brothel chamber. While evoking a long history of depiction of courtesans and beauties in early modern Japanese painting, at the same time the artist implores us to simultaneously reflect on the brutality that often lurks behind beautiful surfaces. It was a radical, disturbing painting at the time it was created, and still has the power to move us today.

A Nagasaki Courtesan with a Nanban Screen, Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (Japanese, 1899–1948), Hanging scroll; color, silver, gold, and gold leaf on silk, Japan

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