Mirrors of Jesus Christ

An ancient technique only found its highest purpose centuries after its invention, and even today it contains a precious meaning for us.

There was never a more terrible and relentless outburst of intolerance against the Catholic Faith than that suffered by the burgeoning Church in Japan.

Shortly after the indefatigable St. Francis Xavier arrived with the Good News in the secret empire of the East in 1549, the first odours of sanctity could already be detected in this nation so thirsty for ceremony and truth, of which the universal patron of missions claimed to be, among all the lands until then discovered, the people most willing to accept Christianity.1

However, less than a century later, an atrocious persecution of Catholicism was unleashed, bestowing the crown of martyrdom on countless priests, religious and lay people. Many accounts retell the heroic composure with which even children stood before the executioners, offering their small limbs to be tortured and amputated, and proclaiming by their actions their deep faith, acquired at such an early age.

The persecution reached such an extreme that patrols were sent to every corner of the empire to force every inhabitant to go through the abhorrent “rite” of stepping on a fumi-e, a figure, usually carved in polished stone, depicting Jesus Christ or the Blessed Virgin Mary. Anyone who refused to do so was subjected to the cruellest torture and death.

Prevented from carrying out any public rituals and deprived of ministers, many courageous Catholics, known as secret Christians – in Japanese, kakure kirishitan – took refuge in catacombs and forests to live their faith in community, which they did for centuries. While they found it impossible to keep sacred images, which would expose them in the inexorable inspections, they nevertheless felt the need for material symbols in the practice of their religion. The ingenious Japanese therefore resorted to an art form that seems truly magical…

At the time of the Chinese Han dynasty – 206 BC to 220 AD – a complex and marvellous craft emerged. Using a solid bronze mirror, the Chinese splendidly polished its front face, while a raised design decorated the back. Surprisingly, when sunlight or another bright light fell on the smooth face of the mirror, and was then reflected off a flat surface such as a wall, the design on the reverse side was projected onto it.

The explanation for this phenomenon lies in the fact that, in the mirror’s production, a sophisticated technique of scraping, buffing and polishing was used on the surface, after which a mercury amalgam was applied, producing differing reflections on a scale imperceptible to the naked eye, but which corresponded to the model cast on the back of the mirror.

The “magic mirror” first arrived in Japan in the 3rd century AD, as a gift for great lords, and became known as shinjūkyō. But its greatest use only came about in the 17th century, serving as an excellent means of making devotional images of the Catholic faithful invisible.

The faithful would make a mirror according to the traditional method and then, instead of leaving visible the religious image on the back which was to be projected by the light, they placed a thin bronze plate over it, embossed with a landscape or other innocuous subject. In this way, they avoided the possibility that more experienced patrol officers might suspect that the mirror innocently embellishing their homes could conceal a Christian image.

The Martyrs of Nagasaki – National Heritage Board, Singapore

How magnificent it is to imagine those confessors of the Faith contemplating the image of the Crucified One projected by the sunlight, as they prayed their prayers in the midst of uncertainty and danger, but putting their trust in Him who said: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:10).

This remarkable artifice of Japanese Catholics, a cultural treasure from a past that is sadly forgotten today, is in turn an excellent metaphor for what must happen in us if we truly want to be disciples of Christ.

Only after we have been carefully buffed by humiliation and suffering will we be able to reflect the effigy of the One who calls us to a full configuration with himself. The flatter, smoother and more transparent the surface – that is, the greater the humility, simplicity and self-forgetfulness – the more perfect will be the projection of the Divine Image.

Let us ask for this grace from the Wise and Immaculate Heart of Mary, the most faithful mirror of all divine perfections.

In this way, having emptied ourselves of all egoism and self-interest, when the light of grace shines on us, it will become clear that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (cf. Gal 2:20). ◊



1 Cf. ST. FRANCIS XAVIER. Carta a San Ignacio de Loyola. Cochín, 29/1/1552. In: Cartas y escritos. 3.ed. Madrid: BAC, 1979, p.408.



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