One of the most famous paintings depicting Francis Xavier is Peter Paul Ruben’s The miracles of St. Francis Xavier. Painted between 1617 and 1618, it is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, in Vienna, Austria.
The scene shows a multi-ethnic crowd being addressed by the Jesuit. In the audience, one character stands out: an Asian men dressed in traditional garment.
Since the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, acquired a Rubens’s sketch of the same character, one opinion has been repeated among researchers about his identity: the Asian men was a Korean. More specifically, a Korean slave taken to Europe by the Italian merchant Francesco Carletti.
In fact, the idea that a Korean was in Europe at that time has been very popular in modern South Korea. The sketch has been exhibited in the country a few times, the last time in 2013. Books have been mentioning this idea for decades now, and a whole volume edited by the museum dedicated portions of its pages to discussing the identity of the sketched man.
However, a recently published article promises to change this story. Scholars Thijs Weststeijn and Lennert Gesterkamp’s “A New Identity for Rubens’s ‘Korean Man’: Portrait of the Chinese Merchant Yppong” presents an album by Dutchman Nicolaas de Vrise where one may find a drawing bearing a very strong resemblance to Rubens’s sketch. The similarity is such that, at first glance, one may think it is a new sketch by the Dutch painter with different coloring.
Interestingly, the image is sided by a text in Chinese, followed by its Latin translation. It explains the drawn man was in fact a Chinese merchant.
According to the text, his name was Yppong or Xīngpǔ 兴浦. The article also presents the Chinese text and an English translation, but there are still some details that could be discussed regarding the text and its reading. For example, the authors read the character kè 客 as visitor, as in modern Chinese. However, traditionally, Chinese merchants were known as kèshāng 客商, yáháng 牙行 and zuòjiǎ 坐賈. Thus, it could be an indication of Yppong’s profession, a travelling merchant or kèshāng 客商. Even though the Latin translation supports the reading presented by Weststeijn and Gesterkamp, it is not unfair to assume that the translator could have misread the Chinese text.
Nevertheless, this fascinating article presents a completely new and very strong hypothesis on the identity of Rubens’s “Korean man.” Should we all agree and call him Rubens’s “Chinese man” from now on?