On-site research by appointment recommended

Concordia Historical Institute Hosts Sadao Watanabe Exhibit

A young family enjoys the Sadao Watanabe exhibit at Concordia Historical Institute on April 15, 2023.

Concordia Historical Institute’s Sadao Watanabe art exhibit explores familiar Bible stories through the lens of contemporary Japanese folk art


On April 15, 2023, Concordia Historical Institute (CHI) was pleased to open their latest on-site museum exhibition, “A Kimono-Wrapped Gospel: The Mingei Prints of Sadao Watanabe.” The exhibit explores familiar Bible stories through the artistic interpretation of one of Japan’s most famous contemporary artists, Sadao Watanabe (1913–1996), an important member of the mingei folk art movement and a convert to Christianity.

Sadao Watanabe was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1913 and converted to Christianity as a teenager. Trained traditional Japanese stencil art, printmaking, and fabric dyeing, Watanabe desired to apply these skills towards making sacred art. He began each work with a prayerful, close reading of the text in question, and sought to only “improvise” artistically where there were silences in the scriptural text. As a result, his work, though highly imaginative and different from traditional sacred art, bears accurate testimony to the Bible stories they depict.

The exhibit features artwork from across the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, as Watanabe was very popular with many across the Synod. The works displayed in this exhibit represent holdings from Concordia Historical Institute’s fine art collection, as well as works on loan from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod International Center. Additionally, a parallel exhibit will run at Concordia Theological Seminary—Fort Wayne, Indiana, featuring pieces from their extensive Watanabe collection.

The exhibit opened during CHI’s Spring Gala, an afternoon of family-friendly activities to raise money for the archives. The event was well attended, drawing local families, seminarians and seminary professors, and even out-of-town guests. The Sadao Watanabe exhibit is now open to the public on the Clayton campus of Concordia Historical Institute.

CHI staff pleased with exhibit

Rev. Dr. Daniel N. Harmelink, Executive Director of Concordia Historical Institute, reports that he is happy with the latest exhibit. “Sadao Watanabe, in striving to make authentic artwork for a Japanese audience, succeeded in reaching the world,” says Harmelink. “It’s a really engaging exhibit, and we all hope that it will inspire visitors to revisit some of their favorite Bible stories. It’s not just a study in how other cultures view Christ; it’s also an invitation to all of us to prayerful meditation on Christ’s saving work for us.”

The exhibit was a team effort, with all the staff members of CHI pitching in. CHI staff repainted the exhibit hall and installed a decorative wall curtain, utterly transforming the space. Molly Lackey, Social Media and Special Projects Assistant, researched and wrote the exhibit banners and labels. “It was a lot of fun,” Lackey says, noting that it’s “a bit outside of my normal wheelhouse. We don’t usually think of Japanese art when we think of Christian art, when, in fact, Sadao Watanabe was one of the most important Christian artists of the twentieth century. I also think the pieces here are just really beautiful and interesting. In a world that’s full of visually distracting media, there’s something so soothing and quiet about these folk art prints.”

Plan your visit today!

“A Kimono-Wrapped Gospel: The Mingei Prints of Sadao Watanabe.” exhibit is open weekdays from 9:00am–3:00pm and by appointment. The exhibit will remain open until March 1, 2024. For more information, please contact us.

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