The political project of the “De Missione Legatorum Iaponensium ad Romanam curiam”

Previously, I made some remarks concerning the authorship of the De Missione Legatorum Iaponensium ad Romanam curiam or Dialogue Concerning the Mission of the Japanese Ambassadors to the Roman Curia. Among the many topics surrounding this source, the identity of its author is certainly one of the most discussed.

Capa Dialogo dos Embaixadores

The Holy Trinity and the crowd below them. Source: Google Books

Nevertheless, many researchers overlook the symbolic and theological nuances of the text. As a matter of fact, the De Missione… is a presentation of the world to Japanese students of the Jesuit seminar. Indeed, Spanish historian Juan Gil referred to it as “una orgullosa presentación de Europa – la triunfante Europa colonial” [a proud presentation of Europe – the triumphant colonial Europe].”(1) Beyond that idea, it is not only a world as seen by Europeans, but a world according to the Jesuits’ vision. That is to say, it consists of a set of ideas that the missionaries wanted their students to have regarding the world beyond Japanese beaches.

One feature that hints to the main objectives of the Dialogue is the drawing in its cover. Published in Macao in 1590, the cover bears a unique image of the Holy Trinity above a crowd of men holding long feathers. Between the Son, the Father and the Holy Ghost we can see the well-known globus cruciger, a Christian symbol of authority representing the dominion of God over the world.

Rubens Coronation

Rubens’ Coronation of the Virgin. Source: Wikipedia

The depiction of the Son on the left, the Holy Ghost above and the Father on the right resembles the way the Trinity was depicted in seventeenth-century works of art. See, for example, the many Coronation of the Virgin paintings, a very popular motif since the thirteenth century.

The Trinity is, as in the Marian paintings, blessing those below them. The crowded men under the Trinity is holding long feathers, indicating they were men close to scholarship. As we see it, these were representatives of a Christian republic. They were scholars, blessed by God in its three forms. Their feathers may represent their studies, and how actively they engage in scholarship — actively, instead of passively holding books and being instructed, they were actors in their scholarship. They were authors of their world, writing their own fate.

Certainly, this topic needs further investigation. We must compare this engraving with others available at the time, or even if the same engraving was used in other Iberian printings in Asia in this period. Nevertheless, the Trinity blessing a crowd of scholars transmits a powerful message to its readers, making it clear how they were those in charge of their own world.

What this engraving tells us is that the De Missione… was about including Japan in the list of Christian republics of the world. The book is not only a “proud presentation” of Europe; instead, it is a long description of the world according to the religions ruling it. It evidenced, above all, how Christianity was a successful political ideology. And the Jesuits were in Japan to sell it to Japanese rulers as much as to sell creed to believers.

(1) GIL, Juan. “Europa se presenta a sí misma: el tratado De missione legatorum Iaponensium de Duarte de Sande.” In: CARNEIRO, Roberto e MATOS, Artur Teodoro de (org.). O Século Cristão do Japão – Actas do Colóquio Internacional Comemorativo dos 450 Anos de Amizade Portugal-Japão (15431993). Lisbon: Centro de Estudos dos Povos e Culturas de Expressão Portuguesa da Universidade Católica Portuguesa and Instituto de História de Além-Mar da Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 1994, p. 411.