Pentecost by Sadao Watanabe

Sadao Watanabe

Pentecost, 1965, Hand-coloured kappazuri dyed stencil print on washi paper, Private collection, © 2019 Tatsuo Watanabe

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The Spirit of Truth

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When the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me. (v.26)

The universal relevance of the gospel message and its appeal across cultures has been reflected in the history of art. Paralleling missionary efforts to contextualize the good news of Christ, artists have depicted biblical scenes in the visual languages of very diverse peoples, places, and times. For instance, African American artist William H. Johnson (1901–70) and Chinese contemporary artist He Qi each depict biblical scenes using the artistic traditions of their own contexts. Thus they have ‘borne witness’ to Christ to the ends of the earth.

Sadao Watanabe (1913–96) was a twentieth-century Japanese artist and printmaker best known for depicting biblical scenes according to mingei, the Japanese folk art style. Born in Tokyo, Watanabe began working as a textile dyer. He was drawn to the mingei style, which had been developed by Yanagi Sōetsu (1889–1961), and he became a student of Keisuke Serizawa (1895–1984), another leading figure in the folk art movement.

In his own work, Watanabe, who had become a Christian at the age of seventeen, depicted biblical narratives in a Japanese context. For example, in his version of The Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples are shown wearing traditional Japanese clothes around a table of fish and sake. Watanabe’s concern was less for realistic representation and more for creating works that showed the relevance of the Christian message and that could be displayed in everyday places. In this depiction of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples are shown in Japanese style and gaze upward as flames appear above each of their heads.

The Spirit of truth ... will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses. (vv.26–27)

‘I owe my life to Christ and the gospel’, Watanabe explained regarding his art. ‘My way of expressing my gratitude is to witness to my faith through the medium of biblical scenes’ (Kohan 2012: 30). Like the disciples who will receive the promised Spirit at Pentecost, Watanabe is the recipient of the promise made by Jesus on the night before he died. And he also has become a 'witness'.

 

References

Bowden, Sandra, I. John Hesselink, and Makoto Fujimura. 2012. Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe (Baltimore: Square Halo Books)

Kohan, John A. 2012. ‘Profound Faith, Profound Beauty: The Life and Art of Sadao Watanabe’, Image, 74: 29–40

Pongracz, Patricia and Eugene Habecker. 2003. Printing the Word: The Art of Watanabe Sadao (Philadelphia: American Bible Society)


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