The Relation between Justice and Martyrdoms in Religious Art: The Paintings in the Church of the Gesù Depicting Japanese Martyrdoms


Martyrdoms are powerful political instruments that convey different aspects of the concept of justice. Legally speaking, they refer to public executions carried out as punishment for breaking the law. However, they are usually regarded as unjust acts performed by a ruling class which, ultimately, strengthen the martyr's righteous cause. This multifaceted relationship between the concepts of martyrdom and justice has been employed as subject matter in many works of art that were intended as political tools and propaganda. To discuss this relation I will introduce two paintings depicting the executions of Christians in Japan in 1622 which are displayed in the Church of the Ges√π in Rome. They were produced by the Jesuits for their agenda regarding canonizations and had considerable repercussion in Europe. In the second half of the 16th c. the Jesuits, and later on other Christian orders, went to Japan and succeeded in converting several local lords. However, the ruling clan regarded Christians as a threat to their hegemony and banned Christianity in 1614, resulting in persecutions and public executions. Christians consider martyrdoms both as the greatest deed of the martyr, which secures his salvation following God's justice, and as an unjust act carried out against God's will. Both aspects are conveyed in the analyzed paintings, not only in the subject matter but also through the effective use of formal elements which strengthen the unjust actions of Japanese guards, in contrast to the devotional deeds of the martyrs.

Author Information
Jose Blanco-Perales, Universidad de Oviedo, Spain

Paper Information
Conference: ACAH2016
Stream: Arts - Social, Political and Community Agendas in the Arts

This paper is part of the ACAH2016 Conference Proceedings (View)
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Posted by James Alexander Gordon