Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.



Japan from the Muromachi Period to the Tokugawa Shogunate



During the Muromachi period of the Ashikaga shogunate, which began in 1338, political power in Japan was transferred to the military aristocracy and regional warlords. Their rivalry favored the rise of local centers, European trade, and Christianity. Starting in 1560, the three great "unifiers" of the country centralized political and military power. The Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo period pursued a policy of isolationism that brought inner stability but also persecution of Christians, and sealed off the country from European influences into the 19th century.


The Muromachi Period (1338-1573)

The shogunate of the Ashikaga brought the military aristocracy to power in Japan permanently. As the central power became weaker and weaker, the rise of the local military warlords began.


In the Muromachi period, governmental power went from the imperial government to the military aristocracy—the samurai, or bushi.

The 3, 4 bushi were sword-fighters who despised court life and lived in the provinces on their estates.

3 Nasu no Yoichi firing his famous shot at a fan atop the mast of a Taira ship

4 Japanese Samurai sword with an
ivory sheath, 18th century

They gave their personal allegiance to a local prince and had their own personal followers. The samurai code of ethics required them to fight for honor and family and, when necessary, to commit ritual suicide (hara-kiri).

Their heroic deeds were immortalized in the cultic plays of the 1, 2 Noh theater.

1 Theater performance, detail from a colored tapestry,
Muromachi Period

2 Noh theater mask, ca. 1500

The Muromachi period began with a power struggle. In 1334 Emperor Go-Daigo, based in Kyoto, tried to reestablish the power of the emperor that had been lost to the shoguns in 1185— whereupon the military leader, Ashikaga Takauji, installed a new imperial line loyal to him. In 1338 Ashikaga conquered the shogunate for himself and his family. The shogun became the sole ruler, with the emperor as a mere figurehead. Military leaders in the provinces, the shugo, gradually established civil administration and tax sovereignty for themselves.

In 1379, under the third shogun Yoshimitsu, the center of power was moved from 5 Kyoto back to Kamakura.

5 The Kinkakuji Temple, or "Golden Pavilion" in Kyoto, built in 1397

The sixth shogun, Yoshinori (1428-1441), was the last to intervene strongly in the political fate of the country; his successors dedicating themselves primarily to the arts. The Onin War of 1467-1477 erupted over the succession of the shogunate and devastated many provinces.
The power of the shugo brought the country considerable economic growth and great cultural achievements, with many provincial courts able to compete with the major courtly centers. The development of fleets by the princes of coastal provinces led to vigorous trade with China but also attacks on China's coasts.



The Samurai

The Japanese knights, the samurai, lived according to the code of bushido, which fused three traditions. From Zen Buddhism came the ideal of inner peace and fearless composure, and from Shintoism, the honoring of the family and ancestors as well as unconditional loyalty to the prince.

Finally, Confucianism imposed on the bushi the requirement of service for the good of society and country, and the protection of the weak. Samurai were also expected to be literate and take interest in the arts.

Armament of a samurai,
16th-17th century



Samurai with assorted weapons



The Reign of the Daimyo

The rule of rival local princes, the daimyo, favored the rise of Christianity in Japan. From 1560, the three great unifiers of the country formed a new, strong centralized power.


The political weaknesses of the last Ashikaga shoguns after the Onin War led to the effective takeover of power by provincial princes, who were known as sen-goku-daimyo, or feudal lords.

The most powerful daimyo—there were between 200 and 300 in Japan—were able to raise armies of more than 10,000 men and replaced the individual combat of the 6 samurai with the besieging of cities and the storming of strongholds by organized infantry troops.

6 Japanese helmet, decorated with
a war fan, 16th century

They pursued their own, shifting alliance policies.

The rivalry among the daimyos also favored the spread of European influence and 7 Christianity in Japan.

7 Book of Catholic faith in Japanese handwriting, 17th century

In 1543 9, 10, 11 Portuguese merchants from Macao landed in Japan for the first time, south of Kyushu.

9 Portuguese trading ship in the port of Nagasaki, detail from a Japanese folding screen, 17th century
10 A Jesuit and a Portuguese merchant in Japan, detail from a Japanese folding screen, 17th century
11 Portuguese merchants, detail from a Japanese folding screen, 17th century

8 The missionary Francis Xavier

Because the daimyo of Kyushu—and soon other daimyos as well—hoped to gain power through European trade, they granted the merchants favorable concessions. In 1571, the port of Nagasaki became the Portuguese base in Japan, and in 1579 municipal authority was even transferred to them. There were always Christian missionaries in the retinue of merchants.

The cofounder of the Jesuit order, 8 the Spaniard Francis Xavier, had already landed in Kyushu in 1549 and was honorably received by the local daimyo.

The work of Caspar Vilela in Kyoto made it a center of Christian missionary work in 1560. By 1582 there were already 200 churches and 150,000 Christians in Japan. A new period of political strength began in 1560 under the three great unifiers—the shoguns Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. They, too, were at first local daimyo, but were able to consolidate their power and influence through clever alliance and war policies. They recognized the need for a consolidation of the central authority and worked for policies that resulted in the expansion of trade and the importation of Western firearms.

Nobunaga began to eliminate his daimyo foes in 1560, seized Kyoto in 1568, broke the resistance of the Buddhist monasteries, and in 1573 ended the reign of the Ashikaga shoguns, whose authority, by this time, existed only in name. His rule also saw the development of the tea ceremony and kabuki theater.



The Reign of the Unifiers

The political reorganization by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu fundamentally changed the structure of Japan. Ieyasu was the first to be able to institute a dynasty of his family.


Nobunaga established his power over the land by making vassals of the local daimyo or by fighting against them with his massive armies and siege techniques. At the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, his troops were the first to use firearms on a large scale. By 1582 Nobunaga had brought the greater part of Japan under his control. He then decreed a standardization of weights and measurements, taxes, and commerce laws, did away with the power of the local guilds, and supported the merchants.

After Nobunaga's death in 1582, his general 3 Toyotomi Hideyoshi was able to gain control, occupying Kyoto in 1584 and allying himself with the powerful Tokugawa Ieyasu.

In 1585, Hideyoshi eliminated the last of the daimyo with brutal force, while trying to win over the traditional elite for a constructive policy of peace, rewarding even former rivals with estates once they had proved their loyalty. He brought the daimyo together in a union and made himself the supreme feudal lord. In order to control them, he often held their families as "hostages of honor" at his court.

From 1583 on, Hideyoshi built 1 Osaka Castle as his capital and in 1591 he appointed himself regent for the emperor.

He occupied Korea in 1592, but was forced to withdraw from the continent two years later.

In domestic policies, Hideyoshi undertook sweeping reforms. He had the whole country surveyed in order to reorganize the villages and family seats. He then put the villages together into production units and calculated the tax rate according to the whole village.

3 Audience hall of Hideyoshi in Kyoto,
partial view of the interior, 16th century

1 Osaka Castle, built 1583-1587 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi

This measure was accompanied by a separation of 2 farmers from the warrior class, 5 tradesmen, and merchants that would prove decisive in the future.

The farmers were forced to give up their weapons, while the bushi were kept out of the villages and were allocated to their princes in personal allegiance. In 1590, after a last victory over the Hojo, Hideyoshi was the undisputed master of Japan, but his attempt to establish a shogunate for his family failed.

2 Box depicting the preparation of tea,

5 Merchants at the market and bathing people at the Shijo Gawa River in Kyoto,
detail from a colored folding screen, ca. 1550

When Hideyoshi died in 1598, his powerful ally 4 Ieyasu, after a decisive victory in the Battle of Sekigahara, assumed power and was able to establish the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 that his family would hold until 1867.

Ieyasu built upon the achievements of his predecessor and laid the foundation for a rather conservative, isolationist form of politics, which, however, contributed to lasting peace and internal stability. He also centralized all of Japan's economic and trade policies, preventing local daimyo from trading with Europe.

4 The Japanese national coat of arms, the chrysanthemum,
at the Higashi-Honganji Temple, founded in 1602 by Ieyasu



see collections:


Japanese Ukiyo-e
Japanese Prints
Hiroshige's "Tokaido"
Hokusai's "Views of Mt. Fuji" and "Panoramic View of Sumidagawa River"
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi "Tsuki hyakushi" - 100 Aspects of the Moon
Sesshu's Long Scrolll


The Tokugawa Shogunate 1603-1867/68

After forcefully bringing peace to the country, the Tokugawa shoguns suppressed Christianity and resolved to seal the country off from European influences. This continued until the 19th century.


Taking over for Hidcyoshi, leyasu first had to contend with a renewed rebellion of the daimyo families. He defeated his greatest rival, Ishida, and his "western alliance" in 1600. By the time he finally gained full control in 1603, 87 daimyo families had been eradicated.

The centers of Tokugawa power were 8 Kyoto and especially Edo (present-day Tokyo).

In 1605 leyasu officially transferred the shogunate to his son Hidetada, who played only a background role until Ieyasu's death in 1616.

In the meantime, Ieyasu wiped out the last of the rebelling daimyos while 9 seizing Osaka in 1614-15.

8 Nijo-jo Castle in Kyoto, residence of the Tokugawa
Dynasty in the imperial city, built 1603-1626

9 The conquest of Osaka 1615,
detail from a folding screen, 17th century

The third Tokugawa shogun, lemitsu, completed the development of Ieyasu's system of rule and finally brought peace to the empire through strict military controls. lemitsu, who enacted strict nationalistic marriage and dress regulations, forced the daimyo to recognize him as the sole lawgiver and in 1635 put all religious institutions under the supervision of the shoguns. The system of personal loyalty and allegiance was anchored at all levels. In 1639, the policy of "locking up the country," which isolated Japan from the outside world for 200 years, was proclaimed.

As early as 1622, 7 Christians had begun to be persecuted, and they were now perceived as foreigners.

Religious and cultural policies gained extreme nationalistic characteristics after the 6 foreigners had been expelled and the native Christians executed.

7 Martyridom of the Jesuits in Japan, painting, 1622

6 A native boy shows a great bird to a European,
colored woodcarving, 18th century

After lemitsu, the Tokugawas increasingly refrained from active politics and left the government to the military leaders. The eighth shogun, Yoshimune, whose reign began in 1716, was able to reestablish the power of the shogunate through governmental and economic reforms. He encouraged new land reclamation and the cultivation of crops such as sweet potatoes and mulberry trees for the breeding of silkworms. He also standardized the legal system and cancelled the debts held by farmers. Yoshimune also loosened the ban on the import of European publications in order to become acquainted with new administrative and agricultural breeding methods. His policies were actively resumed by the eleventh shogun, Ienari, from 1787.

Japan experienced a new upswing, but the policy of isolationism remained in place until the country was forcibly 10 opened by the United States in 1855-54.

10 Delivery of a letter from US president Fillmore to the Japanese emperor
by a delegation on 14 June 1853, lithography, 19th century



Revolt of the Christians

The religio-political measures of the first Tokugawa shogun provoked the revolt of the Christians of Shimabara in 1637-38.

The shogun brutally crushed the uprising, and initiated the extermination of Christianity in Japan.

Even when restrictions on the import of Western writings were moderated in 1720, no publications with Christian content were allowed to enter the country.

Depiction of the Virgin Mary in a plaster form.
Persecutors of Christians recognized Catholics
by their refusal to desecrate the form by stepping on it.



see collections:


Japanese Ukiyo-e

Japanese Prints


"Views of Mt. Fuji
" and "Panoramic View of Sumidagawa River"

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
"Tsuki hyakushi" - 100 Aspects of the Moon

Sesshu's Long Scrolll



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