Written By Michael Ashman
The history of remembering the fallen, the sacrifices of martyrs and their strength to defend their actions has been a subject of art for a long time. Intertwined with their contributions to history is how they died. Christian martyrs have always been a part of art history. The ways they died were immortalized in painting; one famous was the display of Saint Bartholomew’s skin after being flayed alive in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel altar wall painting “The Last Judgment.” What may not be familiar to most of us are martyrs in Japanese folklore. That is where Japanese American artist JUURI helps us to see both sides by combining two histories into one with her painting “The Standing Death of Ben-Kei St. Sebastian.” St. Sebastian and Ben-Kei share a similar trial by arrows for protecting their convictions. JUURI’s art piece demonstrates a balanced combination of characteristics shared by these two men, and shows it through her artistic expression and creativity.
The stories behind these two unfortunate protagonists mix well with each other. On one side is St. Sebastian, a man persecuted for his Christian beliefs. He was sentenced to death by arrows. He is commonly depicted standing, tied to a pole or tree, with arrows piercing his skin. He was not killed by this initial torture and survived. Only after his rescue was he finally stoned to death. On the other side is Ben-Kei, a Japanese monk warrior that fought to protect his master. After bravely fighting off many attackers, he succumbs to multiple arrow shots. However, as stated in the folklore, when enemy soldiers came upon his body, he was still standing after taking his last breath before falling over. The conclusion to these stories is their unbelievable strong will to survive, and loyalty to protect their beliefs until the very last breath.
“The Standing Death of Ben-Kei St. Sebastian” is a mix of art styles. In this painting, JUURI uses mostly colored pencil, acrylic, and watercolor with some gold leaf. The portrait of Ben-Kei St. Sebastian illustrates the combined death of both characters in one person. His expressionless face and defined body are idealized, despite the fact that arrows have pierced his neck creating agonizing bloody wounds. Adding further to the purity of this piece, his white head cowl is clean of any blood stains. A gold leaf halo surrounds his head. It can either represent an actual halo, in terms of St. Sebastian’s Christian faith, or a glowing moon as a backdrop for Ben-Kei’s stoic pose. Switching from the more traditional style of his body, the background around him is more abstract. Swirling floral patterns and floating text against a deep black surface creates a setting devoid of location.
JUURI also wrote a short poem about “The Standing Death of Ben-Kei St. Sebastian” to complement the painting. In her poem, she creatively shortens the experience of death felt by these two men. The emotion of what could have been their final thoughts is very poignant. One can get a sense of the men’s loyalty to their king and devotion to protect him, even if may have been in vain. Looking at the painting and reading the poem definitely enhances the overall the viewing experience.
Prints of “The Standing Death of Ben-Kei St. Sebastian” by JUURI are exclusively available at Thumbprint Gallery and on our online store. To see the print and the poem together, click here. The public is welcome to visit Thumbprint Gallery at 920 Kline Street in La Jolla. The gallery is open Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 12pm to 4pm.