Written by Jennifer Chen-su Huang
Although one may not necessarily associate Christainity with East Asian visual culture, there were many discreet sculptures of the Virgin Mary venerated in Japan during the 16th and 17th centuries. The term Maria Kannon refers to the image of the Virgin Mary produced in East Asia that holds an uncanny similarity to the Buddhist White-Robed Kannon (白衣観音, Byakue Kannon), also known as Guanyin (觀音) in Chinese and Avalokiteśvara (अवलोकितेश्वर) in Sanskrit.
Japan held a significant Cathlolic population prior to the Edo period. The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier brought Christianity to western Japan in 1549, and by the early 17th century there were as many as half a million Japanese Christians, ranging from peasants to samurai. However, these numbers came to a halt when the central government in Japan illegalized Christianity. Despite persecution and the possibility of torture and death, many Japanese Christians continued their spiritual practice secretly. The Maria Kannon was critical to the preservation of their faith, which thrived underground for the next two hundred years.
Because of the severe punishment given to anyone found worshipping or producing Christian iconography, Japanese Christians imported numerous white ceramic and ivory Maria Kannon statues from southern China instead. While this was still a dangerous endeavor, these ceramic facilities, such as one in Dehua County of Fujian Province, became accustomed to the mass production of both Maria Kannons and Guanyin statuary, hence their strong visual similarities. The Dehua kilns produced iconography for both Christians and Buddhists, making it difficult for the Japanese pro-Buddhism government to catch the illegal importation of Maria Kannons.
There were already comparisons being drawn between the bodhisattva Kannon and the Virgin Mary prior to the illegalization of Christianity in Japan, but the degree to which Christians were persecuted in Japan further conflated the imagery of the two deities. Kannon (or Guanyin) is also known as the Goddess of Mercy and is associated with the ability to grant children. Although Kannon (or Guanyin) typically have an androgynous appearance, “feminized adaptions of Guanyin arose in 15th-century China due to the popularity of values such as filial piety and chastity.” Visual and ideological similarities were initially observed between Kannon and the Madonna, but the anti-Christian persecution in Japan made their synonymy necessary. Often the only distinguishing feature between an image of Maria Kannon and Guanyin would be a small, nondescript cross.
Maria Kannon, also known as Marian Guanyin, embodies both Madonna and Kannon. Its image is a unique fusion between Christianity and Buddhism and was fundamental to the survival of Christainity in Japan.
“Maria Kannon,” Courtesy of Sophia University.
“Go hai Guanyin,” Qing dynasty (1644-1911), China; Dehua, Fujian province, Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Virgin and Child,” 1240-50, Northern France, Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.