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Cola School - VM - Melody Bellefeuille-Frost

Yuki no Santa Maria
Our Lady of the Snows
by Melody Bellefeuille-Frost
Atop Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument commemorate the existence and persecution of Japanese Christians from the arrival of Francis Xavier (co-founder of the Society of Jesus) in 1549 until the Meiji era began in 1868. The museum holds a kakemono (hanging scroll) titled Yuki no Santa Maria (Our Lady of the Snows). Although the artist and date are unknown, it is likely that a pupil at the Jesuit ‘art academy’ or ‘painting seminary’ in Japan, developed by Italian missionary-artist Giovanni Cola (c. 1558-1626), made this image around 1583-1614.
Yuki no Santa Maria is mysterious. Its composition and historical context prompt us to question and reflect, perhaps particularly during the Advent and Christmas seasons.
First, the image’s composition suggests an understanding of the iconographies of the Virgin Mary – and prompts questions about its damaged portion. The image depicts Mary gazing downward, her hands raised together as though in prayer. She wears red and blue robes as well as a floral headpiece. Her long, brown hair flows down her back, and a beauty mark decorates her left cheek. The worn surface of the painting suggests that it was rolled and unrolled numerous times, functioning as a devotional image. Noticeably, the image’s left side and base have been damaged.
The iconography of Mary with her eyes downcast and hands folded is present in other image types: the Madonna of the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of the Virgin, the Annunciation, and the Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child.1 Through missionary and merchant routes, prints and paintings depicting such image types reached Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The imported images were then reproduced or adapted by local artists for use in Japanese Christian devotion.
What originally filled the damaged space in Yuki no Santa Maria? Did the image depict the Christ Child sitting on his mother’s lap? Possibly, considering the image types from which the scroll was adapted, but the damage is too severe to know. Instead, this mysterious space invites beholders like us to imagine.
The image’s historical context underscores the theme of mystery. By 1614 waves of persecution had already struck missionaries and converts in Japan. Officials strictly regulated international relations by expelling missionaries and reducing commercial activities, essentially isolating Japan from European influence. Yuki no Santa Maria, however, survived 250 years of persecution and isolation before Japan reopened to Western nations. A ‘Hidden Christian’ family from the Sotome area of Nagasaki kept the scroll rolled up in a bamboo case, concealed under a floor.2 It was eventually discovered in the 1960s, and it has been described by art historian Gauvin Alexander Bailey as “one of the finest paintings to survive from any of the Jesuit missions anywhere.”3
The ‘Hidden Christian’ era refers a period of time of almost three centuries from the early 17th century until nearly the end of the 19th century when Christianity was persecuted and banned in Japan. Forms of the faith were preserved through concealment. Like other objects of religious visual culture, Yuki no Santa Maria has a hidden history. How long did the image wait in darkness? What was it like for the owners to retrieve and unfurl the scroll? Again, we cannot know, but we can imagine.
The mysteries of Yuki no Santa Maria resonate with Advent and Christmas themes. During these seasons, we reflect on the mystery of Mary encountering God and mothering the Christ Child. The Lord was with Mary, the favoured, blessed one (Luke 1:28). She pondered Gabriel’s visit, and responded to his announcement in faith, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). The Bible then records Mary’s Magnificat, her song of praise, in Luke 1:46-55. And, once he was born, Mary beheld the very face of Christ.
As we gaze at Yuki no Santa Maria, it invites further reflection on the mystery of God’s presence. We are situated millennia after Mary lived and Christ became incarnate, and centuries after the Japanese Christian artist made this image. The hanging scroll, with its damaged portion, reflects how we may ponder the mystery of Christ’s presence from our place in history. Where is Christ – in the image, in history? The mysterious composition and historical context, the mystery of Mary’s experience as she encountered God – Yuki no Santa Maria draws us in to embrace the mystery of these stories ourselves.
1 Mia M. Mochizuki, “Seductress of Site: The Nagasaki Madonna of the Snow,” in Aemulatio: Imitation, Emulation and Invention in Netherlandish Art from 1500 to 1800: Essays in Honor of Eric Jan Sluijter, ed. Anton W. A. Boschloo, Jacquelyn N. Coutré, Stephanie S. Dickey, and Nicolette C. Sluijter-Seijffert (Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2011), 76-88.
2 Kataoka Rumiko, “雪のサンタ・マリア,” in Hidden Kirishitan of Japan Illustrated, ed. Ito Genjiro (Kamakura: Kamakura Shunju-sha Co., 2021), 133-134.
3 Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542-1773 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 75-76.
Cola School, 雪のサンタマリア (Yuki no Santa Maria; Our Lady of the Snows), c. 1583-1614, Japanese colours on paper, mounted on a hanging scroll, 28.1 x 21.8 cm (scroll), 17 x 12 cm (image), Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, Nagasaki, Japan.
The family who owned the hanging scroll bestowed its title, Yuki no Santa Maria. The title is drawn from a story of an unexpected snowfall that signalled the site on which to build the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 352 CE. According to the story, a couple sought to honour the Virgin Mary. She responded to their prayers in a vision, instructing them to build a church where it snowed. On a hot August night, it miraculously snowed on the Esquiline Hill, and the church was constructed on that location. This story, like the iconographies of Mary, was transported to and adapted in Japan.1
Melody Bellefeuille-Frost is a Canadian artist and theologian. She is a PhD Divinity candidate with the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews (St Andrews, Scotland). Her research project compares images of Christ in European Jesuit and Japanese Christian art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the aim of better appreciating the theological themes apparent in the artworks.
ArtWay Visual Meditation 7 January 2024