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Buddhist Priest in Japan Combines Buddhist and Christian Iconography in New Art Piece

The painting measures 130 x 160 centimeters. From

The chief monk at Tenyu-ji, a Buddhist temple in the Nishi-Kojimachi District of Isahaya City, Nagasaki Prefecture, has commissioned a painting of the famous Christian Madonna and child iconography in a uniquely Japanese style, with Kannon Bodhisattva taking the place of Jesus’s mother. The painting, unveiled by Tenyu-ji’s Tetsujo Suda earlier this fall, is aimed at commemorating the Christian history of the region and building future bridges between the two religions.

“Not only confrontation between religions, but also conflicts and discrimination among different groups of people are contributing to a plethora of tragedies the world over,” said Suda, 56. “My hope is our modest endeavor to value universality will help realize peace.” (The Asahi Shimbun)

Both religions have faced persecution in Japan’s long history. In the Edo period (1603–1867), many Christians were forced to practice in secrecy after violent repression. And in the Sengoku period (1467–1568), Christian warlords persecuted Buddhists in several areas.

Suda explained that he wanted the work to remind people of the dark periods in Japan’s history. In conversations with prefecture and city officials, Suda said he had gained a deeper appreciation for the religious history of his area.

The officials described Tenyu-ji as “precious in its proximity because few Buddhism-related cultural properties remain in existence on the grounds of the domains of Christian warlords.” (The Asahi Shimbun)

Michitaka Kanda, 43, a pastor and researcher at Chinzei Gakuin University, noted a signboard that recounts the story of Buddhism’s oppression. The sign reads that a “fleeing temple head was killed and buried at the time of the Christians’ assault on temples and shrines.” (The Asahi Shimbun)

The rich history led Suda to think about Buddhists during their period of oppression disguising symbols as Christian icons. This led him to conceive of the idea to create the Madonna and Child painting featuring Kannon Bodhisattva as Jesus’ mother.

The artwork itself was created by Rina Matsudaira, 33, a painter from Kyoto Prefecture. Matsudaira, a Christian, is well known for her paintings of people in the traditional Japanese style.

Over a period of some six months, Matsudaira worked on the piece, while studying the religious history of the region and learning about Buddhism from Suda.

The final painting is in a traditional Japanese triptych format with Jesus and Kannon Bodhisattva in the center. Instead of a lotus flower in Kannon’s hand, as is usual, Matsudaira placed a rose, emblematic of Catholic iconography.

“From a Buddhist perspective, Kannon can be interpreted as making an appearance as the Virgin Mary in front of Christians,” Suda said. “Seeking what different religions have in common seems more important than stressing their differences to fuel confrontation.” (The Asahi Shimbun)

Matsudaira agreed, adding, “I am a Christian but gave thought to philosophies in Buddhism in my process of mastering Japanese-style painting,” she said. “I feel the religions may share some concepts.” (The Asahi Shimbun)


The painting has gone on display at the Catholic Tamatsukuri Church in Osaka’s Chuo Ward, where Matsudaira attends church.

Toshihiro Sakai, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Osaka-Takamatsu, offered his appreciation of the project, “The painting is easy to accept as it displays a soft touch typical of Japanese drawings while maintaining a divine ambience,” said Sakai. “The idea of transcending religious frameworks sounds very nice to me. Dialogue between religions is an important theme for Catholicism, too.” (The Asahi Shimbun)

The Madonna and Child artwork is expected to be exhibited at Buddhist events with the hope of overcoming religious divisions.

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Monk inserts Buddhist deity into Madonna and Child work (The Asahi Shimbun)

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