Provenance: Acquired at auction in Argentina in the 1970’s by:
Private Collection, USA (until 2018)
Literature: Temples of Gold, Crowns of Silver: Reflections of Majesty in the Viceregal Americas, ed. Bélgica Rodríguez, Lenore D. Miller, and Barbara von Barghahn, Washington DC, 1991, p. 56, illus.
Exhibited: “Temples of Gold, Crowns of Silver,” The Art Museum of the Americas, the Organization of American States, Washington DC, May 2-June 29, 1991; George Washington University Dimock Gallery, Washington DC, June 6-September 12, 1991.
This impressive baptismal dish is a remarkable example of eighteenth-century silverwork from the viceregal Peru. From its roots as a synthesis of Spanish tastes and practices with those of indigenous peoples, the art of silversmithing in the Americas developed into a rich tradition that responded to the unique desires and needs of colonial society. Already in the mid-sixteenth century, there was great demand for silver objects both in Spain and in Latin America, due in no small part to the large amounts of base silver being mined and refined there. This demand remained constant through the eighteenth century, the last flowering of the colonial silversmithing tradition, which melted away with the political changes and the independence movements of the early nineteenth century. This baptismal dish dates from this final period of viceregal silverwork, and its form and style correspond with similar works produced at this time in Peru.
The most striking feature of this baptismal font is its imitation of a scallop shell. The scallop shell was a common symbol in the Christian tradition from the medieval period on, probably originating with the shells worn by pilgrims on their return from shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. These shells also came to be associated with the notion of rebirth by water, and thus, the sacrament of baptism. The scallop shell was a recurring motif in Peruvian silverwork of the eighteenth century, and several types of objects were modeled on its shape, including holy-water fonts, basins, shells for pouring water during baptism, and baptismal dishes like this one.
This silver shell is adorned with 26 concave gadroons, or grooves, and its curved base is decorated with foliage, scrolls, and flowers. The undulating/scalloped rim of the basin contains a raised, C-shaped decoration that is repeated inside the shell along the base of the gadroons. The underside of the shell reveals signs of the techniques used in its creation, as well as one of the most fantastic aspects of the work: the three spiraled conch shells that serve as the feet of the dish. The dish’s elaborate backsplash features feathers emerging from cornucopia on the outer edges, and in the center, the Lesser Royal Coat of Arms of Spain/the Spanish Monarch, in use from 1700 to as late as 1868, although here with the lions and towers reversed.
This crest includes a representation of the Pillars of Hercules with the words “Plus ultra” inscribed on banderoles. This motto was adopted by Charles V (1500-1588), Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, and later incorporated into the arms of Spain. It is an adaptation of the phrase “Non terrae plus ultra” (“No land further beyond”), which was thought to have been written on the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar as a warning to all who would venture beyond what was then the known world. “Plus ultra,” meaning, “Further beyond,” is a clear reference to Spain’s discovery of the New World. The presence of this coat of arms suggests that this work may have been commissioned by or intended for a Spanish official or visiting dignitary.
Silver was the material of choice for both ecclesiastical and domestic vessels in the New World, not only for its status as a precious metal, but also because of its abundance and durability. Baptismal dishes in the shape of scallops were common in Peru, a clear indication of their popularity and desirability. They were intended for ecclesiastical use as baptismal fonts, as well as for domestic use as decorative pieces placed on top of furniture. In the latter case, these dishes fall into the category of religio-domestic works—objects intended for the home that refer to religious activity. The scale and the secular coat of arms on this dish indicates that it was likely originally destined for a domestic setting. This work may be compared with a similar, scallop-shaped dish, which also displays Spanish heraldic imagery on the backsplash with the inclusion of the imperial double-eagle surmounted by a crown.
This dish has traditionally been considered a work of the Cuzco school based on stylistic similarities. It does not have any marks on it, which would give a more precise indication of its date and place of origin. However, in addition to its style, the popularity of this kind of object in Peru gives a clear indication of its origin, and the presence of the Spanish royal crest helps us to place it firmly in the eighteenth century.