Vida de San Felipe de Jesus Protomartir del Japon y Patron de su Patria México

Vida de San Felipe de Jesus Protomartir del Japon y Patron de su Patria México

José María Montes de Oca, Mexican, 1772 - c.1825
Francisco de Agüera Bustamante, Mexican
Active Dates: 1784 - 1820
A leather bound book of 31 engravings
Accession Number
Credit Line
Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer

José María Montes de Oca and Francisco de Agüera Bustamante, Vida de San Felipe de Jesus Protomartir del Japon y Patron de su Patria México, 1801. Leatherbound book of 31 engravings; 9 × 6¾ × ½ in. Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 2013.347.

height: 9 in, 22.8600 cm; width: 6 3/4 in, 17.1450 cm; depth: 1/2 in, 1.2700 cm
Mayer Center, Latin American Art
Latin American Art

The Mexican engraver and etcher Faustino José María Montes de Oca (1772-ca. 1825) designed and published a life of the Mexican criollo martyr-saint Felipe de Jesús in 1801. The delicate intaglio prints combine finely etched and engraved lines with what appears to be small areas of patterns impressed into soft ground and then etched. They narrate Felipe de Jesús’s birth in 1575 as Felipe de las Casas to a wealthy family in Mexico and his decision to enter the Franciscan order, but then leave it, tempted by the devil. In a charming image, the cloven hooved devil holds a plumed hat over the friar’s head, luring him away from the austerities of life in the monastery to the luxuries of life outside. In the next image Felipe de Jesus, dressed as a dandy in the same feathered hat, departs for the Philippines on business at his parents’ request. The choice to leave would ultimately be fatal to young Felipe, who joined the Franciscans once again in Manila, only to be shipwrecked with his Franciscan brethren on the shores of Japan in 1596 while traveling back to Mexico to take his final vows. For complicated reasons, the Japanese eventually captured and crucified Felipe alongside twenty-five others at the Nagasaki, tying them to crosses and stabbing them each through with three spears.
     The Denver Art Museum has two copies of this “picture book” of the saint’s journey from birth to death to beatification, the first containing 30 illustrations, the second 31, both including engravings not part of Montes de Oca’s original grouping of 31. Created over two hundred years after the Mexican martyr-saint’s death, Montes de Oca’s visual narrative tells a different story of the life and death of Felipe de Jesús than does the historical record. Felipe was something of an uninspiring figure for a martyr, having lived a life of decadence in Manila prior to entering the order and demonstrating, according to witness accounts, a less than impassioned enthusiasm for martyrdom. While some of the other men crucified alongside Felipe had served as missionaries for years prior to their deaths and others were stalwart Japanese converts to Catholicism, Felipe had only recently entered the Franciscan order and had never worked to convert the Japanese. Even the Franciscan Fr. Marcelo de Ribadeneira sent by the Franciscans in Manila to Mexico and then Rome to promote the beatification beatification (the first step towards official recognition of sainthood) of the martyrs had little praise for Felipe, characterizing him as something of a wealthy, immature brat.
     Interest in Felipe de Jesús did not emerge in Mexico until his 1627 along with the other martyrs, and then criollo sentiment provided the primary fuel for devotion, not Felipe’s own merits. In essence, Felipe de Jesús became popular because he was Mexican and the first individual born in the New World to be beatified.
     Montes de Oca glosses over the less-than-glorious details from Ribadeneira’s story and pads Felipe’s shortcomings with added anecdotes in his favor, many of them compiled by earlier supporters of the friar who augmented known information with invented possibilities. No record attests to Felipe having attended the prestigious grammar school Colegio Maximo de San Pedro y San Pablo, for example, but Montes de Oca follows earlier precedent in placing the young man as a student in those hallowed halls. The tempting devil scene and depiction of Felipe’s journey to Manila as a merchant aside, Montes de Oca stresses the friar’s acts of penitence, portraying him at prayer, bathed in a shaft of heavenly light, kneeling flagellating himself while gazing at a crucifix, and tending to ill friars. In Montes de Oca’s illustrations, Felipe de Jesús is isolated in the moments of his martyrdom, seemingly alone in a strange land, persecuted by all who surround him. Except for a single representation of a row of four crucified friars accompanied by miraculous signs of God’s favor, Felipe de Jesús is repeatedly separated from his companions. From Montes de Oca’s fine plates alone, the viewer gets the impression of Felipe as the primary victim in the martyrdom story, an exemplar holy man and innocent target of the cruel Japanese.  
     Montes de Oca’s particular attachment to this somewhat disreputable saint may be the result of a possible connection to silversmiths. The vague nature of details regarding San Felipe’s birth led to wide speculation—one of the places suggested as his birthplace was a house belonging to the silversmith’s guild, leading proponents of the cult to argue Felipe had apprenticed as a silversmith at one point in his youth. Over time Mexican silversmiths nurtured a growing devotion to the saint. Silversmiths and intaglio engravers like Montes de Oca have historically shared tight bonds. In colonial Lima, for example, many intaglio printmakers were related to or began life as silversmiths, suggesting a close tie between the two groups. A similar connection between Mexican silversmiths and printmakers may explain Montes de Oca’s apparent devotion to Felipe de Jesús.
     As noted above, the two Denver Art Museum copies of Montes de Oca’s ambitious work incorporate engravings not present in the original. Printed in light brown link and signed at base “Agüera sc.” (likely Francisco Agüera Bustamante (active 1784-1820), these engravings are the products of a less skilled hand than their counterparts. They show four figures with Japanese-style topknots lowering Felipe de Jesús’s body from the cross. The engraved text on the two prints declares their purpose—they are participants in the canonization process that the Bishop of Tarasona was actively promoting, offering 40 days of indulgences (freedom from time in purgatory) to those who prayed an Our Father and an Ave Maria before the image of the saint.

-- Emily C. Floyd, DAM Alianza Mayer scholar 2017,