In the Buddhist Japanese and Christian European traditions, historical religious figures could be just as effective miracle workers after their deaths as when they were alive. Posthumous miracles due to a saint’s intercession were in fact required for Catholic canonization. The touch of a relic torn from their martyred bodies could cure illnesses, but sometimes even the sight of a modest printed image of a holy person could do the same.
Two prints illustrating this idea appear side-by-side for the first time in the interdepartmental Asian Art and Prints and Drawings exhibition Spreading Devotion: Japanese and European Religious Prints (on view in Gallery 107 until June 21), showing how the fascination with holy figures extended far beyond their lifetimes, and well beyond anyone remembering their true likenesses. Though sometimes said to have intrinsic healing powers, these powerful images did not always celebrate healing, instead glorifying righteous, bloody conquests. Warrior saints and kings could be equally renowned for their tactical prowess, real, or imagined.
The tall print above is a 17th-century woodcut of the sword-wielding Heavenly King Indra, which was printed much later, around 1845, and mounted as a hanging scroll. The other, horizontal composition (below) is a detailed engraving from 15th-century Germany showing Saint James the Greater—who is also armed to the teeth—routing a Turkish army in an imaginary battle in Spain 800 hundred years after his death around AD 44.
The woodcut is said to have originated from the hand of the monk Nichiren, founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism in the thirteenth century. According to legend, he carved a woodblock with a crude image of his patron deity, the god Indra, holding a sword. The block was rediscovered at Daikyōji temple in Shibamata near Tokyo in 1779; during a famine in 1783, ninth-generation head priest Nikkyo carried this woodblock around in the streets, and it had healing effects. The image became famous, with smaller versions sold to pilgrims to the Daikyōji Temple. Many versions of the print exist. The Art Institute’s print is believed to have been made from the oldest surviving woodblock of the image from the 17th century, and carries the signature and ciphers of the 12th generation head priest Nikki (1800-1859), and the next priest Nittei, who became the head priest in 1845.
In contrast, the engraving showing Saint James in the middle of a battle that never occurred was itself not known to have performed any miracles. Yet the scallop shell on James’s hat refers to the pilgrimage his many devotees made to visit his relics at Compostela, Spain, after making their penitent way through much of Europe. The saint initially became the patron of Spain in part because of his supposed role in driving the Turkish army out of that country. While this print lacks the personal seals of its printers as seen in the Indra print, the signature at the bottom, M+S, suggests it was made by the famous German engraver Martin Schongauer (active 1470s-90s). This association, like the fictitious subject matter, is not entirely trustworthy; in fact most scholars agree that it was done by others in Schongauer’s workshop, who adopted his style and signature.
Whether medieval, 17th, or even 19thcentury in origin, these rare prints show us the fervor of belief in both cultures, as well as the common desire to be able to own a piece of the history of these charismatic, dangerous, and above all, holy, individuals.
Spreading Devotion: Japanese and European Religious Prints was curated collaboratively by Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, and Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings.
After Nichiren. Heavenly King Indra, 17th century, printed around 1845, gift of Martin A. Ryerson.
School of Martin Schongauer, Saint James at the Battle of Clavijo, late 15th century, bequest of Mrs. Potter Palmer, Jr.