Manchester Art Gallery – Design Gallery – Modern Japanese Design


“You-hen Vase: Day and Night”

In England we enjoy our afternoon tea, but for the Japanese, tea is a ritual that has become almost a sacrament. In the 16th century Jesuit missionaries, most notably Francis Xavier, travelled to Japan to spread the Christian gospel, where they discovered the beautiful role that tea played to encourage quiet meditation, rustic simplicity and finding beauty in the present moment; all spiritual disciplines that they also valued within their tradition. Xavier’s mission was a great success and Christianity spread across parts of Japan to the wife and students of Sen no Rikyu, whose philosophy shaped the tea ceremony that is still celebrated today. It is said that, influenced by his observations of the consecration of bread and wine at the traditional Catholic Mass, Rikyu adopted some of the movements and practices into this non-religious ceremony. His vision for the tea ceremony includes an invitation to all, no matter what their gender or position in life, an open table for all who were willing to exercise humility by kneeling and crawling through a low door into the tea room and leaving their sword at the entrance as a sign of peace. The similarities continued in the way the tea bowl is cleaned and wiped at the beginning of the ceremony and the hand gestures made that mimic those during the traditional Eucharist. The tea bowl on display in the gallery is in the style that expresses the philosophy of wabi, the appreciation of beauty, simplicity, the imperfect and the rustic aesthetic of the everyday, that Sen no Rikyu introduced.

Rikyu’s poetic vision for the tea ceremony drew much interest and attention throughout Japan and he became very close friends with the overlord Hideyoshi, who eventually grew jealous of Rikyu and in 1591 ordered him to commit ritual suicide. His last act was to host an exquisite tea ceremony. In the years that followed Christian persecution was rife and tea houses were used secretly for Catholic Mass because the silhouette’s seen through the rice paper walls looked so similar to the actions of the tea ceremony, that from outside it was difficult to distinguish between them. Many of the quintessentially Japanese stone lanterns that were displayed in gardens have the figure of the Virgin Mary or of a cross carved into the base part that is not visible and were used as grave markers for Christians.