The Last Supper by Sadao Watanabe (1981)

Terry Glaspey wrote “One day, while browsing the shelves in a Christian bookstore in Tokyo, Watanabe was struck by the fact that the covers of most of the books were decorated with European religious art. There seemed to be little art available that represented the Christian faith in the visual language of the Japanese, and he wanted to find a way to communicate the message of Christ to those in his own culture, for whom its stories and teachings were largely unfamiliar.”

In his 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know, Glaspey goes on to say

The menu for Sadao Watanabe’s version of The Last Supper is unlike any other in art history. Jesus is placed at the head of a low table among his kimono-clad disciples as they kneel on a tatami mat and prepare to partake of a traditional Japanese meal. The charming large-eyed fish at the center of the table is the sea bream, or tai, a much-prized delicacy that is normally served on ceremonial occasions. It is accompanied by plates of sushi rolls and stylized bottles of sake.

As with actors in the Japanese Noh theater tradition, the faces of the figures in this print are masklike and impassive, as is the case in all Watanabe’s pictures. The position of the hands of his figures gives more clues to their emotional state than their faces, which is one of the ways that Watanabe creates an aura of reserved quiet and dignity in his work. Following Western art traditions, Jesus, with a halo around his head, is slightly larger than the disciples in order to indicate his importance. The “beloved disciple,” John, leans upon Jesus with affection while others gesticulate or fold their hands in an attitude of prayer. Judas can be seen in the foreground, clutching a bag of money behind his back. In a playful commentary, Watanabe adorned Judas’s kimono with the symbol of the fox, a traditional Japanese symbol of bedevilment.

Watanabe suggests that this was the kind of meal that would be served to Jesus as an honored guest if he were to visit a Japanese home in our own time. With this fresh vision of the Last Supper he wedded the East and the West, just as he did in hundreds of other biblical prints he created during his life. He took the familiar stories and symbols of Christianity, sometimes even borrowing poses from medieval and Renaissance masters, and reimagined them as distinctly Japanese, using the traditional Japanese medium of printmaking.

How much of our understanding of the gospel is imposed by our cultural framework?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R

Sadao Watanabe

Sadao Watanabe

Sadao Watanabe was born in Tokyo in 1913, the son of a Christian father and Buddhist mother. His father did not attend church with any regularity or speak directly of his faith, but his son would sometimes overhear him quietly singing a hymn as he walked in the family garden: “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins.” When his father died unexpectedly, the young Watanabe, only ten, was forced to drop out of school to help with the family finances and had to put his dreams of becoming an artist on hold.

A kindly woman from the neighborhood felt sorry for the quiet, artistic boy who had lost his father and invited Watanabe to come to church with her. At first he was not much attracted to Christianity, finding it to have “the smell of butter” (a Japanese expression for something foreign and unpleasant). He moved toward belief slowly, spending considerable time comparing Christian and Buddhist scriptures. It was not primarily this intellectual investigation, however, that ultimately brought him to faith in Christ but rather a miraculous recovery from tuberculosis—which had kept him bedridden for two years. Members of the church prayed for his healing, and following this answer to prayer he decided, at age seventeen, to be baptized. His formerly Buddhist mother was baptized shortly thereafter. In a culture where only about 1 percent of the population practiced Christianity, and where standing out in any way was frowned upon, his decision to publicly identify with Christ was evidence of the seriousness with which he embraced his new faith.

Sources & Resources

Bowden, Sandra et al. Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe. Baltimore: Square Halo Press, 2013.

Pyle, Anne. Printing the Word: The Art of Watanabe Sadao. New York: American Bible Society, 2000.

Ryan, Antonio. “The Art of Sadao Watanabe.” National Catholic Reporter. December 24, 2004.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).


Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!


Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at


Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life