The so-called Hearst Chalice at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is widely regarded as one the most significant works of Mexican silversmithing from the sixteenth century. Its style, technique, and above all its unique combination of materials—including precious metals, feathers, wood carvings, and rock crystal—have led scholars to describe it as the perfect fusion of European and Ancient American (or pre-Columbian) traditions. Surprisingly, despite the consensus about the chalice’s importance, the cultural and artistic conditions that led to the creation of this singular object have not been thoroughly analyzed. By closely examining the different material components of the imposing artifact—which though carefully assembled also stand as independent units—we can better understand its uniqueness and symbolic potential. This essay espouses a synoptic approach by considering a range of agencies, perspectives, and sources—documentary and material—to restore the “Hearst” Chalice to its rightful context, without aspiring to a totalizing view of the past or a definitive decoding of its system of meaning. Categorizing its form and function as purely Indigenous and European poses a distinct set of challenges and limits its hermeneutic possibilities. The work—like many others created during the volatile period following the fall of Tenochtitlan—encodes a new visual language that reveals the highly subtle process of negotiation of these two cultures in a particular space and time. Moving away from the reductive concept of syncretism, the essay offers a fresh look at this impressive contact period work and its shifting values over time.
El cáliz proveniente de la colección Hearst (hoy parte del Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA]) es ampliamente reconocido como una de las piezas de orfebrería novohispana más significativas del siglo XVI. Su estilo, su técnica y, sobre todo, su particular combinación de materiales –metales preciosos, plumas, microesculturas talladas en madera y cristal de roca– han llevado a los especialistas a describirla como la fusión perfecta de tradiciones europeas y prehispánicas. Sin embargo, pese al consenso que existe sobre su importancia, las circunstancias que dieron lugar a su creación no han sido suficientemente analizadas. Al reparar en los diferentes componentes materiales de este imponente objeto litúrgico, que si bien están perfectamente ensamblados también destacan como elementos autónomos, podremos captar mejor su singularidad y potencial simbólico. Este texto adopta una perspectiva sinóptica al tomar en consideración una gama de voces, perspectivas y fuentes –tanto documentales como materiales– para restituir el cáliz a su debido contexto; sin embargo, no se busca con ello articular una visión totalizadora del pasado o proporcionar una interpretación definitiva de sus sistemas de significado. Al evitar ceder al impulso de categorizar su forma y función como la conjunción armónica de elementos indígenas y europeos, la obra –al igual que muchas otras creadas durante el período volátil tras la caída de Tenochtitlan– revela un nuevo lenguaje visual que manifiesta el sutil proceso de negociación de estas dos culturas en un espacio y un tiempo determinados. Este texto se aparta del reductivo concepto de sincretismo y ofrece una lectura novedosa de este impresionante objeto del período de contacto así como de las diferentes valoraciones que se han hecho de él a lo largo del tiempo.
O cálice proveniente de coleção Hearst (hoje parte do Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA]) é amplamente reconhecido como uma das obras mais importantes da ourivesaria mexicana do século XVI. Seu estilo, técnica e, acima de tudo, sua combinação única de materiais – incluindo metais preciosos, plumas, entalhe em madeira e cristal de rocha – fizeram com que os estudiosos o descrevessem como a fusão perfeita das tradições europeia e pré-colombiana. Surpreendentemente, apesar do consenso sobre a importância do cálice, as condições culturais e artísticas que levaram à criação desde objeto singular não foram completamente analisadas. Ao examinar de perto os diferentes componentes materiais do imponente artefato – que, apesar de cuidadosamente montados também se funcionam como unidades independentes – podemos compreender melhor sua singularidade e potencial simbólico. Este ensaio adota uma abordagem sinótica ao considerar uma gama de agências, perspectivas e fontes – documentais e materiais – para devolver o cálice ao seu contexto legítimo, sem aspirar a uma visão totalizante do passado ou a uma decodificação definitiva do seu sistema de significados. Categorizar sua forma e função como puramente indígena ou europeia apresenta um conjunto distinto de desafios e limita suas possibilidades hermenêuticas. O trabalho – como muitos outros criados nesse volátil período após a queda de Tenochtitlan – codifica uma nova linguagem visual que revela o altamente sutil processo de negociação dessas duas culturas num espaço e tempo particulares. Afastando-se do conceito redutor de sincretismo, este ensaio oferece um novo olhar sobre este impressionante objeto do período de contato e sua valoração variável ao longo do tempo.
The so-called Hearst Chalice at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is widely regarded as one the most significant works of Mexican silversmithing from the sixteenth century (fig. 1).1 Its style, technique, and above all its unique combination of materials—including precious metals, feathers, wood carvings, rock crystal, and at one time possibly gems or bells2—have led scholars to describe it as the perfect fusion of European and Ancient American (or pre-Columbian) traditions.3 Surprisingly, despite the consensus about the chalice’s importance, the cultural and artistic conditions that led to the creation of this singular object have not been thoroughly analyzed. Moving away from the concept of syncretism that describes the mixing of European and Indigenous cultural forms and practices, we argue that the chalice is paradigmatic of an entirely new process of symbolization that marked the volatile years following the conquest, as the newly arrived Spaniards and the local Indigenous communities were staking out their place in the new body politic.4 The result of a highly subtle process of negotiation—what we prefer to term “mutual accommodation”—, the work embodies a complex set of interrelated meanings that defined this pivotal moment in the formation of the budding society following the fall of Tenochtitlan.5
This synoptic methodology, which considers a range of agencies, perspectives, and sources both documentary and material, allows us to restore the “Hearst” Chalice to its rightful context, without necessarily aspiring to a totalizing view of the past or a definitive decoding of its system of meaning. As the historian William B. Taylor has perceptively observed: “By reckoning with many contexts, relationships, and sources, one can hope to recognize which were salient in a particular situation, but context does not have to mean wholeness.”6 In addition, by examining the different components of the imposing artifact—which though carefully assembled also stand as independent units—we can better understand its uniqueness and symbolic potential. Categorizing its form and function as purely Indigenous or European poses a distinct set of challenges and limits its hermeneutic possibilities. The work—like many others created during this turbulent period—encodes a new visual language that was born from the meeting of these two cultures in a particular space and time.7 We argue that looking at the work as a “hybrid,” “composite,” or “pastiche,” terms that allude to the combination of so-called pure or authentic elements of diverse origins (Spanish-Indigenous), hinders rather than reveals the deeper and multiple processes at play in the conception of early postconquest objects such as this chalice.8
Chalices were an indispensable part of the Mass’s eucharistic ritual, when the bread and wine are believed to transform into the body and blood of Christ.9 As the most important of all sacred vessels, great expenditure was often lavished on their creation. In the 1560s, the Tridentine cardinal and archbishop of Milan Charles Borromeo (1538–84) introduced a series of reforms intended to unify ecclesiastic practice across his archdiocese; a few years later he published his Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae (1577), a pocket-sized edition that was quickly disseminated throughout the Catholic world, including Mexico. In his manual, Borromeo gave clear instructions for manufacturing chalices:
The chalice will be of pure gold or, if because of limited means this is not possible, of pure silver, gilded both inside and outside.…The foot will be proportionately wide, so that the chalice will stand firmly wherever it is set and cannot fall over. It will be octagonal or hexagonal or of some other similar shape. There will be decorations appertaining to some sacred mystery of the Passion on the surface of the foot.…The knop in the middle, suitably decorated, will not have any projections which might make it uncomfortable to hold the chalice or which might hurt the fingers, above all at the moment in which, during the Mass, the celebrating priest holds the chalice using both his thumb and index finger. The cup, considerably narrow at the bottom, is to gradually flare out to the upper lip, which must not curve inwards or outwards. The largest and most precious chalice, in pure gold and decorated with chased sacred images, used in solemn Masses, will be at least eighteen ounces around. It will be fourteen ounces high in all, and will be more capacious in the cathedral, collegiate, and distinguished parish churches. The small chalice, which is used in the Mass that is not solemn, will be fourteen ounces around and twelve ounces high.10
LACMA’s silver gilt chalice adheres in many of its details to Borromeo’s prescriptions.11 Composed of several abutting sections, the bowl, or calyx, on which the cup rests is decorated with images of the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) interspersed with caryatids straining to lift the cup above them. The central hexagonal knop consists of rock crystal Ionic columns, with cast metal bases and scroll-shaped ornaments on the capitals, and six glass niches that enclose delicately carved wooden figures of the twelve apostles set against what were originally shimmering feather backgrounds—now mostly deteriorated (figs. 2–3).12 The foot is decorated with chased medallions with scenes of the Passion, flanked by the four doctors of the church (Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Jerome) and the four evangelists. Four lobes covered with glass contain additional wood microcarvings of the Stations of the Cross, while the convex rim above is populated with cherubs holding medallions with the corresponding Arma Christi, the symbols of Christ’s Passion.
The chased and carved narrative scenes are modeled after printed sources and are arranged sequentially: Last Supper, Agony in the Garden, Arrest, Flagellation and Denial of Peter, Simon Cyrene Carrying the Cross, Christ on the Road to Calvary, Descent from the Cross, and Entombment. This organization resembles larger cycles of the Passion, emphasizing the mnemonic aspect of the piece. By focusing on the various episodes leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection, the faithful could meditate on his great sacrifice. The scenes could also serve a didactic purpose or as a prompt for the officiating priest to narrate the various stages of the Passion, perhaps slowly moving the chalice before the parishioners during the Mass, heightening the poignancy of the moment. Although the scene of the Crucifixion is conspicuously absent, Christ's sacrifice is thoroughly implied in the wine contained in the cup—the Precious Blood itself.
Closer examination of the chalice’s foot demonstrates that even on a diminutive scale, the wood and silver scenes are rife with symbolism. In the first scene of the cycle, the Last Supper, small visual clues enhance the narrative beyond the moment pictured by alluding to recently past events and foreshadowing others soon to occur (fig. 4). The table is set with the lamb and bread as a prefiguration of Jesus’s sacrifice and the Eucharist. Jesus sits at the far end of the table, slightly larger than the twelve apostles who surround him. His left arm rests on John, his “beloved disciple,” asleep at the table. Across from him, Judas holds his purse of silver, the payment he received for betraying Christ. Next to his foot is a pitcher, often depicted with a basin in reference to the washing of feet that took place before the meal. The composition would have been well known in New Spain in the early years of evangelization through the wide circulation of prints, either in loose form or inserted in bibles.
Opposite the Last Supper, the image of Christ on the Road to Calvary exemplifies the way in which the various episodes were strategically placed to construct the story (fig. 5). In a crowded scene Christ falls to his knees while carrying the cross, as four soldiers lead him with a rope. Another group of figures trails behind him, with Simon Cyrene grasping the cross to help bear the heavy load. Above this vignette, two putti hold a medallion with the Veil of Veronica. In the wood carving immediately to the right, Christ continues his ordeal with the cross, looking back as Veronica shows him the Sudarium with the miraculously imprinted image of his face (fig. 6). These consecutive images allow Christ’s journey to ensue across different media, with the surmounting instrument of the veil strategically bridging the silver and wood scenes. The meticulous arrangement demonstrates the close attention paid to the visual program across the various components and the media of the chalice.
One of the most salient aspects of LACMA’s chalice is the mix of materials. The wood microcarvings—encased in glazed niches with feather backdrops—belong to a distinct group of works that originated in Christian devotional practice. The tradition reached its apogee in the first quarter of the sixteenth century in the Netherlands, where a range of religious themes (most commonly the Nativity and the Passion) were carved into intricate rosaries, miniature altarpieces, and especially prayer nuts (also called prayer beads).13 An example of the latter from the Metropolitan Museum of Art exemplifies how these miniscule works were meant to be handled and opened to elicit piety and encourage meditation (fig. 7). The tiny wooden sphere, which measures about 2.5 inches (6.5 cm) in diameter when closed, opens to reveal various layers of elaborate carvings. The upper half of the work portrays a crowded Crucifixion tableau, while the hinged panels that open chronicle the moments leading up to and following Christ’s death, including Carrying the Cross, the Descent, and Entombment. Like the foot of the “Hearst” Chalice, the intimate scale of this Passion imagery compelled the viewer to look closely at the scenes, with contrition. Given their remarkable level of craftsmanship, these devotional items soon became highly coveted.14
The production of similar microcarvings in Mexico coincided with the arrivals of the first Flemish Franciscan missionaries there between 1523 and 1524.15 As is well known, around 1527 one of these vicars, Friar Pedro de Gante (c. 1480/86–1572), established the famed school of San José de los Naturales next to the convent of San Francisco el Grande in Mexico City, where he trained the sons of the local Indigenous elite to read and write in Latin, in addition to teaching the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Through their instruction, the Franciscans sought to continue the spiritual conversion initiated by the conquest and create a paradise on earth, far removed from the corruption that had suffused contemporary European society.16 For Gante, art, music, and theater were pivotal tools in the process of evangelization, and his school soon became an epicenter for the mechanical arts.17 Two prints inserted in Marianus de Orscelar’s Gloriosus Franciscus redivivus sive Chronica observantiae strictioris (1625), a book devoted to the lives of illustrious Franciscans, captures the spirit of evangelization of the early days, when the various mendicant friars who arrived in Mexico engaged in the concerted education of the Indigenous nobility (figs. 8–9). Packed with figures to symbolize the magnitude of their efforts, the images collapse multiple scenes into one to provide a bird’s-eye view of their range of strategies. In the first, the Spanish friar Antonio de Ciudad Rodrigo says Mass while kneeling in front of an altar dedicated to the Virgin, assisted by Friar Juan de Palos. To the right Gante teaches music to a group of Indigenous children, as Friar Juan Focher, perched on a pulpit, holds up an image keyed with numbers to instruct a group of Indians—marked as “uncivilized” through their partial state of undress. The second engraving emphasizes the catechistic role of images, with Friar Jacobo Testera pointing at a series of canvases of the Passion that ends with Christ’s majestic resurrection, and Friar Andrés de Córdoba, to the right, revering an image of the Crucifixion.18
In his widely cited description of the School of San José de los Naturales, the Franciscan missionary Friar Gerónimo de Mendieta (1525–1604) singled out the abilities of Native artisans.19 He recounted how the students “learn the trades and arts of the Spanish, that their parents and grandparents did not know, and they perfect those that they used before.”20 Mendieta further noted: “It can be generally understood that for almost all the fine and strange works that are made in any trade or art in the Indies (at least in New Spain), it is the Indians who practice and make them, because the Spanish masters of these trades rarely do more than give work to the Indians and tell them how they want it done. And they execute it so perfectly, that it cannot be improved.”21 The School of San José de los Naturales, along with other conventual workshops scattered across the viceroyalty, became important centers for the redeployment of ancient traditions and techniques in the service of Christian designs.22
It is likely that knowledge of this small-scale sculptural tradition was introduced in New Spain within this context. Comparable portable relic containers were valued in Europe in the later Middle Ages and were often given to noble family members and hosts in New Year’s Eve celebrations. Beyond their appeal as luxury objects and for including rare and precious materials, these somewhat ambiguous works doubled as reliquary, private altar, pax, and ostensorium.23 A substantial number of Mexican miniature altars, pendants, and beads that combined feathers and microcarvings have been identified, attesting to the popularity of this tradition locally (fig. 10).24 Lantern-shaped pendants (lanternillas or capillas) were characteristic, typified by an example at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Its format resembles a reliquary, with all the connotations that this entails in terms of protecting and reifying the sacred vestige, only here it encloses scenes connected to the Passion.25 The detailed carvings are enhanced with red paint to render Christ’s blood more realistic (and thus introduce an element of temporality to emphasize his humanity, a topos of the time), and green paint to call attention to the crown of thorns. The use of enameled gold and the addition of pearls further enhance the sense of preciousness of the objects. Pearls, which were thought to be abundant in the New World, exemplified the proverbial riches of the newly conquered lands; because of their iridescence and tonal shifts, they also become a suitable material to symbolize Christ’s dual nature and transience.26
A similar pendant in the Louvre Museum points to the relative standardization of these objects (fig. 11). The two larger sides of both pendants feature the Crucifixion and Deposition, which were among the most commonly represented passages in this body of work.27 The representations of the Deposition in several of these objects are closely modeled after Marcantonio Raimondi’s 1520 engraving based on a composition by Raphael (fig. 12).28 The main variation across these comparisons is the fourth figure at the bottom of Raimondi’s print: in the Louvre version she is placed behind the group comforting Mary, and in the Walters Art Museum pendant she is removed altogether to better fit the scene into the compressed space. A third example from the Hispanic Society of America again depicts the Crucifixion and Deposition with microcarvings over a feather backdrop (fig. 13). A rosary bead in the shape of a skull, this format—rare among the Mexican examples—is one of the most direct known references to the Netherlandish prayer nut tradition.29
To be sure, these objects proved the successful process of evangelization and exemplified the talent of local artists, making for excellent gifts.30 Bernal Díaz del Castillo (c. 1495–1584), who was among the first Spaniards to land in Mexico, described the skill with which the Indigenous artists “carve emeries (esmeriles), and inside them appear all the stations of the holy Passion of our Redeemer and Savior Jesus Christ, which if I had not seen them, I would have not believed they were made by Indians.”31 To underscore their mastery, Díaz del Castillo resorted to a literary trope of the period and compared the Native sculptors (three of whom he listed by name) with Apelles, the great painter of ancient Greece, as well as Alonso Berruguete and Michelangelo, two of the most acclaimed artists of his own time.32 This strategy allowed him to render the unfamiliar familiar, enhancing the “desirability” of the minute items. The Spanish chronicler Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (1549–1625) similarly remarked on the skill of Indigenous artists and their ability as carvers. In a description about the extraordinary assortment of items found in Mexico City’s markets (tianguis), he described the Indians’ miniature wood carvings:
They work crystal very finely and make large and small glass cases (beriles), in which they place very small carved wood images, where in a space the size of a fingernail, they carve images of Christ on the Cross flanked by Saint John and Our Lady, with the Magdalene at his feet. The reverse includes additional figures of the same wood so that the glass case is two-sided; and if these were not a daily sight, they would seem to be an impossible thing.33
The term beril (or viril) is defined in the Diccionario de Autoridades (1726–39) as a very clear and transparent glass used to encase and protect precious items such as relics.34 It is likely that the similar sounding words beril and esmeril (the latter documented by Díaz del Castillo), were used interchangeably to describe this class of artifact and not solely its protective glass. In other words, it became a pars pro toto expression that alluded to one component to describe the object as a whole.
If the diminutive carvings elicited wonder, their feather backings magnified their attraction. Endowed with sacred meaning and associated with sacrificial practices since ancient times, feather images continued to be produced after the arrival of the Spaniards; many—both old and contemporaneous—were sent to Europe almost immediately after the conquest.35 The mendicant orders in particular appreciated the potential of preserving some forms of pre-Hispanic traditions and redirecting them toward Christian ritual. Though some missionaries were surely aware of the preconquest symbolism of certain materials and forms inserted in ostensibly European-Christian artifacts, they focused instead on their technical and material dexterity and original aesthetic appeal.36 For the Indigenous communities, however, this new type of object represented much more than an amalgamation of cultures; it demonstrated their willingness to adapt to their new circumstances under Spanish rule, ensure the continuation of vital local practices, and underscore issues of local ethnic state pride.
In this regard, it is useful to consider the seminal role of the Native nobility as intermediaries, the go-between for Spanish authorities and their pueblos. As the historian Yanna Yannakakis and others have shown, this particular cast of “cultural brokers” ensured the stasis of the new colonial order. Many were affiliated with the Franciscan-run schools where they were taught to read and write Latin and Spanish. Their remarkable linguistic talent and cross-cultural sensibility, coupled with their standing in their own communities, gave them a legitimacy that ensured the continuation of their own lineages while also binding the Native pueblos to the colonial state and the church. To succeed in this powerful yet extremely tenuous dual role, intermediaries were required to demonstrate their fealty to their own communities and their Spanish overseers and promote the interests of both groups simultaneously. To this end, they resorted to a range of maneuvers, including the production of objects and images as part of their symbolic arsenal.37
The Mass of Saint Gregory (1539, Musée des Amériques – Auch, France; fig. 14), among the most extensively discussed sixteenth-century feather mosaics due to its complexity and for recording the date and name of the patron, offers one of the most illustrative examples of how old traditions were repurposed in the new era.38 The image was produced two years after Pope Paul III (1468–1549) issued his famous bull Sublimus Dei on June 2, 1537, in which he recognized the rational capacity of the Indians and their ability to become true Christians—an issue that was hotly debated at the time.39 Adapted from a European print (as were most postconquest Christian feather mosaics), the composition includes an inscription framing the image that clearly situates the work in space and time. It notes that it was commissioned by the Indigenous governor Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin in 1539 for Pope Paul III under the supervision of Friar Pedro de Gante in Mexico City. Scholars have correlated the feather painting with Pope Paul III’s bull and viewed it as an outward sign of gratitude to the pontiff (though the work appears not to have reached him). Based on an apocryphal legend, the scene describes the moment when Pope Gregory (c. 540–604), accompanied by several deacons, was performing a Mass and asked for a sign to appease the incredulous; suddenly the figure of Christ miraculously appeared on the altar, proving the legitimacy of the mystery of Transubstantiation, when the consecrated host literally transformed into the risen body of Jesus. Adapting this precise episode to the media of feathers—which had caused enormous admiration among Europeans since the conquest—was a powerful political statement. If the scene made corporeal the body of Christ to assert the validity of the Mass, the act of commissioning and producing this “feather painting” (as the works were typically described) fully demonstrated that the new Indigenous converts—embodied by Huanitzin—were true believers. What better proof of Indigenous piety than to adapt one sacred medium (feathers, with colors that seemed to shift in response to light) to another (a Western devotional image) as evidence of their profound understanding of the new religion and the concept of Transubstantiation, the most sublime form of transformation?40
The success of the colonial system depended on the pact between two separate social, economic, and legal political units—the república de indios (Indian republic) and the república de españoles (Spanish republic, which included as well Africans and mixed-race people). The communities of the Indian republic were administered by members of the Indigenous elite. Huanitzin (r. 1537/38–41) was the governor of the four parcialidades of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the Indian sectors surrounding the traza, the central section of Mexico City reserved for Spaniards. A grandson of Axayacatl (Tenochtitlan’s sixth ruler and the successor of Moteuczoma I), and nephew and son-in-law of the Mexica ruler Moteuczoma II, he was intent on maintaining his prerogatives as a member of the pre-Hispanic elite and to continue governing his altepetl (ethnic state) within the colonial system. (Before he was elevated in the 1530s to governor of Tenochtitlan, he was governor of Ecatepec under Moteuczoma II.) As the art historian Barbara E. Mundy has keenly observed, he likely commissioned the awe-inducing feather mosaic as a symbol of Indigenous autonomy and power and to publicly assert his Christian affiliation during a time when Spanish authorities were accusing many of his peers of idolatry and were burning them at the stake, and his own loyalty was under intense scrutiny.41 The inclusion of the pineapples on the far right can be seen as a symbol of the “land.” (The “strange” fruit associated with the New World had captivated Europeans since they first laid eyes on it.) In other words, it manifests the deliberate desire to localize the scene in Mexico, while also appealing to Europe’s fascination with the “exotic” and unfamiliar, hence amplifying the image’s value (as a precious and singular item that merited being passed from one powerful individual to another) and compounding its meaning.42
The idea of Indigenous precedence was key to Mesoamerican political organization, and it continued in sixteenth-century New Spain.43 Different local ethnic state communities continually tried to outdo one another during public festivals and ceremonies; they viewed their participation in these events as both a right and privilege but also as a form of royal and ecclesiastic endorsement of ethnic autonomy.44 One palpable way to accomplish this kind of “micropatriotism” was by dressing the various religious symbols of the new political order with the precious feathers they knew had mesmerized the Spaniards from the outset of colonization.45 Feathers were used to adorn the bases and arms of crosses, monstrances containing the sacred host, processional candlesticks, and the litter and palio (canopy) in which the host was carried during Corpus Christi processions and on the feast days of various saints.46 They also decorated the interior of churches that were mostly devoid of European paintings and images in the period that immediately followed the conquest. In the 1538 Corpus Christi procession in Tlaxcala, for example, feather and gold images—“the finest of which would be greatly valued in Spain”—were appended to the litter on which the Blessed Sacrament was carried.47 The Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente, known as Motolinía (c. 1490–1569), who was among the twelve missionaries from the order who arrived in the newly founded viceroyalty in 1524, described the finery with which the Holy Eucharist was decorated: “The Blessed Sacrament is placed reverently and devoutly in their well-crafted monstrances of silver, and besides these works [the Indians] also beautifully decorate the interior and exterior of the tabernacles with highly refined ornaments of gold and feathers, of which there are excellent masters in this land, so much that in Spain and Italy they would consider them remarkable and would admire them open-mouthed, as those newly arrived here do.”48
Such public displays of splendor and the pointed use of certain precious materials—feathers, gold, and stones—hark back to precontact times, when both deity impersonators and the Aztec nobility were sumptuously dressed during various calendric ceremonies and rituals. This analogy was clearly drawn by the Franciscan friar Juan de Torquemada (c. 1562–1624), who in 1615 published his monumental Monarquía indiana, a voluminous study of culture in Central Mexico based on the work of other missionaries and local informants. In his description of the feast day of the god Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror), he notes how, on the eve of the ceremony, the lords who arrived in the temple were newly dressed by the priests with the costumes of that deity, and the priests “removed their old clothes, placing them in a chest, with the same reverence with which we treat ecclesiastic ornaments, and these coffers or chests were filled with many ornaments, clothing, jewels, medals, armbands and exquisite feathers (“plumas ricas”) that only added to the value and richness offered to this god.”49 Brilliant artifacts—minerals, feathers, pearls, shells, insects, metals, ceramics—were connected to the spiritual idea of transience or impermanence. The objects were seen as physical manifestations of the presence of supernatural beings and of the creative power of light to energize matter.50 Aside from being admired for their resplendent qualities, unusual forms or surfaces, and sacredness, these precious items, as is well known, also symbolized the long arm of the Aztec Empire or Triple Alliance, as many were brought from the periphery of the empire to the heart of political power in Central Mexico. The objects came to the Valley of Mexico as tribute exacted by the Aztec Triple Alliance from their numerous conquered provinces; through foreign trade conducted by the pochtecas (merchants); and through market exchange. Their variety—especially rare and costly materials from the far-flung parts of the dominion and other lands beyond its limits—was a visible sign of the empire’s expansion and might.51
Feathers captured the imagination of Europeans because of their iridescence and the skill with which they were applied. Many feather artworks were gifted to rulers, aristocrats, clergymen, intellectuals, and naturalists across Europe (and also Asia and Africa) where they were received with fervent admiration. The main centers of production were likely Mexico City and Michoacán, but the early chroniclers reported the use of various kinds of plumages elsewhere, including Texcoco, Tlaxcala, and Huejotzingo, and there were likely workshops scattered throughout the viceroyalty.52 As noted in the Florentine Codex (c. 1575–77), a key bilingual (Nahuatl-Spanish) work about Native culture on which the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún collaborated with Nahua intellectuals and artists, the tradition was widespread and feather artists (amantecas) could be found at work in their own homes everywhere in New Spain.53
If the use of feathers for religious works allowed the Nahuas of Central Mexico to keep their traditions alive, some authors argued that they proved the ancestral connection between the Old and New Worlds. The origins of the Native inhabitants of the Americas became a subject of much contention from the beginnings of European colonization. Even though Pope Paul III had declared the Indians to be fully human in 1537, and in the sixteenth century the Spanish crown determined that they were Christian neophytes that deserved their protection (and therefore could not be enslaved), discussions about their rational capabilities and their ability to become true Christians extended over the next three centuries. Authors spilled much ink tracing their origin. One of the many—often bizarre—theories (what one author described as “a sea of so many literary storms”54), argued that they descended from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and that they arrived in America with the dispersal of people following the Great Flood. This monogenetic theory (i.e., that humankind had the same ancestral parents), implied that the Indians descended from Adam and Eve and therefore shared their biblical ancestry.55 The mestizo chronicler Diego Muñoz Camargo (c. 1529–99), considered the tradition of feather work as an irrefutable sign of their biblical lineage: “It seems to me that some of them [these Indians] descend…from the Tribes of Israel.…These people used woven feathers for their tabernacles…as stated in the Holy Scripture; no other nation, that we can read about up to now, had, used, or knew how to make this kind of work given its complexity, aside from the Indians from Mexico and their nations. From which we can infer that they in fact are Jews, because they served their gods in their temples with this decoration.”56 To be sure, for Camargo, the son of a Spanish conquistador and a Tlaxcalan Indigenous woman, there was some advantage in emphasizing the biblical ascendancy of Indians as it boosted his own (Indian) ethnic affiliation, which was constantly under siege. Whether the clergymen who commissioned (or accepted as gifts) sacred vessels such as the “Hearst” Chalice viewed the incorporation of feathers as evidence of the Indians’ biblical ancestry is difficult to gauge, and it likely varied from case to case. But there can be no doubt that if they allowed such a practice to continue, it was because they considered it as a hopeful sign of the Indians’ reverence and understanding of Christian ritual and the significance of liturgical objects.
The “Hearst” Chalice not only reflects a clear and sophisticated understanding of the tenets of the Christian faith and the story of the Passion but also of the significance of materiality to encode the divine. The mix of materials and the collaboration among artists who mastered different crafts parallel ancient Mesoamerican practices. The Mexica assigned great significance to the concept of preciousness. The otherworldly radiance that resulted from contrasting gold, feathers, and special stones in ritual paraphernalia was central, and amantecas often worked together with goldsmiths and lapidary artists.57 By the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, a developed tradition of gold and metalwork had emerged in Tenochtitlan, which is documented in both Indigenous codices and European accounts.58 The Nahuatl text of the Florentine Codex, for example, devotes an entire chapter to the subject; it describes a range of metalworking processes in great detail, including casting, hammering, embossing, and soldering, many portrayed in the extensive sequence of twenty-four accompanying images.59 One illustration depicts a Native artist at work in an interior space creating gilded vessels presumably for the church, including a ewer, an elaborate, multisided and multitiered incense burner (that resembles in its construction the knop of the “Hearst” Chalice), and a pair of goblets or chalices. The column and arch on the right clearly situate the scene in a Spanish-style building, conceivably a convent, therefore functioning as a synecdoche for the religious context of these materials (fig. 15). By contrast, the Spanish text offers no translation, adducing that the information was too technical and of no religious or moral value to include—even while acknowledging how widespread the craft was and that metalworkers “were found everywhere.”60
After colonization, Indigenous artisans of precious metals continued their craft under the supervision of European friars and immigrant silversmiths as well as in Native workshops.61 Herrera y Tordesillas described the exceptional skill of Indigenous goldsmiths and lapidary artists, and the highly inventive works that were found in the tianguis: “The most valuable things brought to the market were gold and silver objects, some cast and others mounted with stones, with such excellence and beauty, that many caused the fervent admiration of the most proficient silversmiths from Castile.”62 He singled out the Indians’ uncanny ability to cast and join the different elements together without soldering them—“something very difficult to understand,” he remarked in awe.63
The “Hearst” Chalice is a vivid example of the sophistication of local goldsmithing techniques. The hexagonal knop is constructed like a lidded canister. The upper portion holds the column units in place under compression, and there are no screws or other mechanical elements used to connect the various parts. This construction approach allowed the unit to be assembled without solder, preventing the organic materials (i.e., wood and feathers) from burning; it also enabled taking it apart for cleaning.64
Like amantecas and goldsmiths, lapidary artists enjoyed some privilege and exclusivity within the ranks of Aztec society and were organized in a specialized guild system.65 Master lapidary artists were adept at cutting, drilling, and polishing hard stones such as rock crystal,66 evidenced in the two large beads on the chalice’s stem that were either hand-filed or abraded.67 The skilled labor required for the creation of these components amplified the symbolic resonance of the material, which was greatly valued in Mesoamerica.68 The Spanish text of the Florentine Codex introduces the quartz: “The crystal of this land is called tehuílotl. It is a stone that is found in mines and in mountains.”69 The Nahuatl description elaborates further, describing the stone as “exceedingly clear.…They are cherished, esteemed, wonderful…precious…venerated.”70 Highlighting the value ascribed to the piece offers a better understanding of the material’s place in society, which is made more tangible by the accompanying illustration (fig. 16). An Indigenous man sits, bedecked in a beaded necklace and bracelet made of rock crystal and other precious stones. In his hand, he contemplates another bead, seemingly performing the described act of veneration. In addition to beads, rock crystal was used in earplugs and labrets, which made for prized gifts and manifested the owner’s status and link to power.
Shiny rock crystal objects were also among the precious goods paid as tribute to the Aztec Empire, underscoring the significance of the material across Mesoamerica and especially in Tenochtitlan. In his history of the Aztecs completed in 1581, the Dominican friar Diego Durán listed rock crystal among the quantities of precious stones that were “loved greatly (aficionada en gran manera)” and entered the Aztec capital as tribute. He continues, “Their principal idolatry was always based on adoring these stones, together with the feathers they called shadow of the gods.”71 The term “shadow” had profound implications; it was closely connected to the sun in Mesoamerican culture and the concept of tonalli (solar heat, irradiation, destiny), or what would be described as “soul” or “life force” from a Christian perspective.72 The inclusion of both revered materials in the “Hearst” Chalice would have therefore held a very particular set of related meanings for its Native creators and audience, underscoring the object’s associations with sacred concepts. According to Durán, Moteuczoma had also ordered rulers to contribute rare and costly stones—including rock crystal—to the building of the temple for the god Huitzilopochtli, where they were incorporated into the structure’s mortar to further honor the Mexica’s patron god.73 Used to revere both earthly and divine rulers, rock crystal simultaneously expressed wealth and spirituality in the Mesoamerican context. As the art historian Joanne Pillsbury aptly noted, “Materials mattered because of their abilities to convey specific ideas and to make manifest relationships between gods and individuals and among members of a community.”74 The Indigenous idea of the value of quartz is suggested by Motolinía, who described how the stone was adapted to the new religion and used to make tall altar crosses—some of which still survive (fig. 17).75 With the rock crystal cross further embellished with gilt silver adornments and bases, the entire ensemble would have cast a resplendent light thought to contain divine power.
Significantly, quartz was already in use in chalices and other ritual objects in Europe, and was commonly understood as a reference to the body of Christ.76 The stone therefore offered a bridge that allowed both symbolic systems to coexist in the same object. Beginning in the ninth century, rock crystal cabochons and globes were used in Europe to adorn liturgical objects and reliquaries, a practice that grew in quality, scale, and variety over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.77 Since the early Roman Empire, crystal had been linked to congealed or hardened water, implying a transformative aspect that lent itself readily to symbolic and theological interpretations.78 Pope Gregory I first connected rock crystal, understood as an unbreakable solid that had once been liquid water, to the body of Christ, subject to human error and change until it rose again, pure and indestructible after the Resurrection.79 The transmutability of water to rock, as well as the resurrected Christ, easily transferred to the conversion of human souls. Such symbolic associations of rock crystal implemented in liturgical objects bolstered their iconographic and ritual functions.
In Mesoamerica, rock crystal, like jadeite and other green stones, also had associations with water based on its appearance, yet the shaping of quartz stones seemed to emphasize their reflective qualities and consequent relationship to the sun.80 Sahagún confirms that in working with rock crystal, master lapidary artists “polished them so that they gleamed, they sent forth rays of light, they glistened.”81 Placed into a liturgical object, the light cast by these worked stones could inspire wonder and induce piety. It is not difficult to imagine how, when the priest lifted the chalice during the Mass, it shimmered, channeling the spirit of the divine. Though mostly disintegrated today, the feather backings must have also come alive in response to motion and ambient light.82 Motolinía remarked on the optical illusion created by feathers inserted in metalwork, noting that “when seen from the front they look brownish, but when turned slightly they sometimes appear orange and at other times like the flame of fire.”83 It was precisely the feathers’ ability to “light up” that made them so suitable for a religious context, their mysterious ability to transform before one’s very eye was perceived as an inalienable quality of the divine, similar to the effect of stained glass in Europe or the mysterious transformative qualities of quartz.84 The dramatic visual effect of lifting the vessel during the Mass had the potential—depending on the setting—of activating its profound and multivalent sacrificial symbolism before the congregants.
Unfortunately, the original context of LACMA’s chalice—like that of many such early postconquest objects—remains shrouded in mystery. Nothing is known about who commissioned it, who determined its iconographic program, or what was the original setting in which it was used. Although the identity of the chalice’s silversmith remains unknown, it is not improbable that, like the feather mosaic commissioned by Huanitzin, this imposing work was created at the behest of a Native governor or “cultural mediator” to impress an important ecclesiastic figure and gain favor for himself and his community. With its rich mix of materials, this highly complex object embodied a new visual language between Europe and the Americas. Members of the Spanish mendicant orders and other religious ministers probably perceived the “Hearst” Chalice as symptomatic of their successful conversion efforts, while also admiring it for its workmanship and fine materials. For the Indigenous artists involved in its crafting, it was a way to ensure their vitality as a polity—that is, an independent, self-governing corporate community under Spanish rule—by creating a new (Christian) artifact dressed in vestigial traditions, a proverbial creative nimbleness at which they had excelled since ancient times. Preserving old structures and values was essential for the Indigenous communities after the fall of Tenochtitlan, when their world was rapidly changing. Some governors stubbornly held on to the notion of continuation as opposed to rupture, proposing that the arrival of the Spaniards did not entail a break with the past but the beginning of a new cycle, and they referred to Mexico not as “New Spain” but as “New Mexico.”85 In a sense, this notion was validated by the universally accepted viceregal names “Ciudad de México” (Mexico City), “Arzobispado de México” (Archbishopric of Mexico), and “Audiencia de México” (Mexico’s High Court).
The combination of pre-Hispanic techniques and Christian iconography speaks to this form of continuation, turning objects such as the “Hearst” Chalice into an entirely new type of commodity. Neither fully Indigenous nor European, this impressive vessel reflects the mechanics of mutual accommodation and the layering of simultaneous meanings during a time of profound change. Just as Native intermediaries applied tactics—subtle, everyday actions to navigate, resist, and even subvert authority86—they commissioned objects that were visibly Christian but that also entailed a remarkable level of Indigenous agency and could therefore be considered by their makers as a form of resistance. This form of negotiation or tacit opposition was achieved through the specific combinations of materials and techniques but also, and perhaps more importantly, through the bold display of their understanding of complex Christian tenets—the ultimate proof of their rational capabilities and their ability to move in between worlds. Put differently, consent existed alongside invisible acts of dissent. An analogous process can be argued for the Florentine Codex, where the Indigenous noble collaborators recorded certain information in the Nahuatl-language text that was deliberately omitted in the Spanish column (believed to be the work of Sahagún with the aid of Nahua informants). This act of omission could suggest that the noble collaborators were safeguarding some information from prying (European) eyes, unable to move as fluidly between the two realms that they were now compelled to translate in deed and soul for the colonizers.87
Explaining objects such as the “Hearst” Chalice solely through the prism of syncretism and the impulse to identify the so-called uncontaminated elements that belong to each culture and their fusion becomes “an issue of surface effects,” as some scholars have aptly argued, hampering other connections and histories.88 We hope that this essay contributes to opening a space to consider early silverwork as more than the adaptation of Native materials to European forms, and helps restore agency to their makers—even when some works were created under the “tutelage” of European friars and goldsmiths. So often these artifacts are viewed in the historiography as the mechanical adaptation of established European forms by Indian “imitators”—a topos of early chronicles as well—or as syncretic experiments.89 In the process, the histories of local artists and leaders adapting to the “new world” run the risk of being irreparably lost.
Aside from six Mexico City marks (a male head in profile between the two pillars of Hercules surmounted by a three-pointed crown and the abbreviated “M/o” for Mexico), which firmly place the chalice in the viceroyalty’s capital (figs. 18–19),90 the vessel bears two French import stamps showing a weevil (on the cup and the foot; fig. 20). Left unidentified until now, these stamps offer clues to the life of the chalice between its creation and accession to LACMA in 1948. The weevil stamp was used beginning in 1893 on silver imports from countries that had tax treaties with France, including Mexico and Spain.91 The presence of the stamp indicates that at some point between 1893 and the first half of the twentieth century, the chalice was shipped to France, perhaps during the tumultuous years between Mexico’s wars of independence in 1810 and the Revolution of 1910. This period was marked by the departure of many families to Europe and the dispersal of important private and ecclesiastic collections.92 We cannot, however, dismiss the possibility that the chalice was in Europe much earlier, perhaps even since the sixteenth century, before it was exported to France. The rich mix of materials would have certainly made the work a prized possession in any European Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities), though it is more plausible that it was intended as a special gift for a church or distinguished cleric—not unlike the dozens of miters and religious vestments that the conquistador Hernán Cortés gifted to ecclesiastic dignitaries in churches and monasteries across Europe in 1522.93
Ironically, when the controversial American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951) acquired the work sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, it was cataloged as “Spanish.” Far removed from its point of origin, the subtlety of its symbolism was lost as it entered yet another context. Hearst was a voracious and eclectic collector. His legendary passion for collecting reached a peak in the 1920s as he furnished his multiple residences and purchased additional storage facilities to accommodate his indulgent tastes.94 In two of these residences, he exhibited his interests in Iberian art and architecture: his five-floor private apartment in New York boasted a gallery devoted to Spanish art, and his estate in San Simeon, California was designed in the “Spanish” style as Hearst imagined it.95 The chalice, which arrived in Los Angeles in July 1948, may have originally been acquired with one of these destinations in mind.96 Hearst purchased it from Lionel Harris (1862–1943), proprietor of London’s Spanish Art Gallery.97 The son of a precious gem dealer, Harris married into an Andalusian family with ties to the antiquities trade, capitalizing on this relationship to build networks and establish himself as a leading dealer of Spanish art in London.98 Harris had a special interest in gold and silver ecclesiastic objects, and during a 1918 trip to Spain he recorded several chalices that he viewed there.99 Both Harris and Hearst have been scrutinized for their imperialistic brazenness in removing artworks from Europe, and especially Spain, in the early twentieth century. If the chalice had once stood for Spain’s dominion over Mexico as Indigenous makers staked out their creative space in this new political hierarchy, its return to the New World signaled yet another shift in social powers—that of the US millionaire collectors and business empires.
The legacy of the earlier conquistadores may literally be inscribed into the piece. The chalice’s foot includes an engraved profile bust of a bearded man in classical armor, hidden from view under the chalice’s stem (fig. 21). Scholars have suggested that it could be a donor portrait.100 However, as it was common practice to salvage and reuse costly materials, it is possible that the silver for this component had a previous application. Salvers with comparable engraved figures could indicate that the plate was repurposed, which would also explain why this ostensibly important detail is concealed from view.101 If so, the recontextualization of this piece of silver within the “Hearst” Chalice is symptomatic of the many lives and understandings that the work as a whole has undergone. Hidden and pierced in the center by the chalice’s stem, one might even ask if this seemingly innocuous detail was in fact so innocent, or if it bore some alternate meaning that is forever lost to time.
We thank our LACMA colleagues John Hirx, head objects conservator, for patiently disassembling the chalice and for his expert observations about the work’s technique and materials, and Rosie Mills, associate curator of decorative arts and design, for sharing her insights with us. We are also grateful to William B. Taylor and Susan Deans-Smith, as well as LALVC’s anonymous reviewers for their careful read of the manuscript and their helpful suggestions.
William Randolph Hearst donated the chalice to the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art (LACMA’s parent institution) in 1948. The chalice was “rediscovered” when it arrived at LACMA. After reviewing its hallmarks, the museum’s curator of decorative arts Gregor Norman-Wilcox identified the work as Mexican in 1966 and formally recataloged it the following year. Its image was subsequently published in Charles Oman, The Golden Age of Hispanic Silver, 1400–1665 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1968), 57, plates 178–79. Close inspection of the disassembled chalice has confirmed the existence of six hallmarks of Mexico City: on the underside of the calyx (which is the clearest), on the underside of the upper stem section between the calyx and rock crystal, on the underside of the lid of the knop, on the rim of the knop itself, on the top of the lower stem section, and on the underside of the foot (see fig. 18). Previous studies of the chalice accounted for only four Mexico City marks. We thank John Hirx for locating all six.
The calyx originally had rings placed between the caryatids’ breasts. (The impressions of the soldered joints are still visible, and in one case a tiny fragment of the arc of the ring survives.) This may indicate that at some point the chalice was enhanced with rings from which gems or other adornments such as bells dangled. The addition of such details—most notably bells—was not uncommon in contemporaneous Mexican works (see, for example, the chalices illustrated in El arte de la platería mexicana: 500 años, exh. cat. (Mexico City: Centro Cultural de Arte Contemporáneo, 1989), catalog nos. 13–14, pp. 146–51, and cats. 17, p. 161). The small bells would jingle when the chalice was raised, calling attention to the sacred moment. A note in the object’s file by one Michael Hall indicates that the work originally “had attachments, rings running between pendant pearls and emeralds” (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1981). If the chalice was indeed once bedecked with gems, it would amplify its symbolic potential. Regretfully, there are no extant photographs or other records to corroborate this information.
Cristina Esteras Martín, “Platería virreinal novohispana: siglos XVI–XIX,” in El arte de la platería mexicana, 83–84, and cat. 15, pp. 152–55; Esteras Martín’s catalog entries in Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990), cat. 170, pp. 395–96; Esteras Martín’s catalog entries in The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, ed. Joseph J. Rishel and Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006), cat. III–4, p. 193; Thomas Michie’s catalog entry in Hearst: The Collector, ed. Mary L. Levkoff, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New York: Abrams, 2008), cat. 49, p. 180. The terms pre-Columbian, pre-Conquest, pre-Hispanic, and Ancient Americas, among others, are often used interchangeably to refer to the plurality of cultures that stretched over a vast territory for over two thousand years. Though they are convenient and deeply ingrained in the historiography, it is important to acknowledge that these categories reflect a European approach and have inherent epistemological limitations.
A suggestive study that reminds us of the importance of looking at objects from a more holistic perspective is Alessandra Russo, The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500–1600 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).
This methodology was the guiding principle of Ilona Katzew’s exhibition and catalog Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011), which aimed to move beyond the notion of “convergence” to suggest a more complex dynamic at play in the creation of some objects created in a colonial context.
For more on the relevance of applying a synoptic approach to studying the past, see the exemplary study by William B. Taylor, “Two Shrines of the Cristo Renovado: Religion and Peasant Politics in Late Colonial Mexico,” American Historical Review 110, no. 4 (2005): 945–74, esp. 971.
A recent stimulating study focused on viceregal mapmaking is Alex Hidalgo, Trails of Footprints: A History of Indigenous Maps from Viceregal Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019). The author contends that mapmaking drew a coalition of social actors, giving rise to a new epistemology among the region’s Spanish, Indian, and mixed-raced communities that was used to negotiate the distribution of land. Native artists and scribes operated between multiple worlds and traditions and retained an important level of agency.
For the limitations of the concepts of hybridity and syncretism as categories of analysis, see Carolyn Dean and Dana Liebsohn, “Hybridity and Its Discontents: Considering Visual Culture in Spanish America,” Colonial Latin American Review 12, no. 1 (2010): 5–35.
In addition to honoring the figure of Christ, precious metals were more resistant to corrosion and breakage, and prevented the wine from being corrupted. On the long history of the chalice, see Herbert Thurston, “Chalice,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Charles G. Herbermann et al. (New York: Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1913), 3:561–64.
Evelyn Voelker, “Charles Borromeo’s Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae, 1577, Book I and Book II: A Translation with Commentary and Analysis,” unpublished manuscript, bk. 2, dicta 31, http://evelynvoelker.com/PDF/Book-II-Final.pdf.
The “Hearst” Chalice is taller than many early examples. In general, chalices became taller in the late Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance. This enabled worshippers to more easily view the objects, particularly when not participating in the ritual. See Elizabeth Parker McLachlan, “Liturgical Vessels and Implements,” in The Liturgy of the Medieval Church, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and E. Ann Matter (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2001), 386.
Some specialists have misidentified the fragile feathers as butterfly wings.
For recent studies of these objects, see Frits Scholten, ed., Small Wonders: Late-Gothic Boxwood Micro-Carvings from the Low Countries, exh. cat. (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 2016); and Evelin Wetter and Frits Scholten, eds., Prayer Nuts: Private Devotion and Early Modern Art Collecting (Riggisberg, Switzerland: Abegg-Stiftung, 2017).
Reindert Falkenburg, “Prayer Nuts: Feasting the ‘Eyes of the Heart,’” in Scholten, Small Wonders, 27.
Juan de Tecto, Juan de Aora, and Pedro de Gante arrived in Veracruz on August 13, 1523, on orders of the Spanish King Charles V to provide spiritual guidance to Hernán Cortés and his men and begin the process of evangelization. The following year, twelve Spanish missionaries, led by Martín de Valencia, arrived in New Spain. Ernesto de la Torre Villar, “Fray Pedro de Gante, maestro y civilizador de América,” Estudios de historia novohispana 5 (1974): 2–3.
See John Leddy Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970).
Torre Villar, “Fray Pedro de Gante,” 21–26. Gante’s utopic model was followed in other conventual settings in the aftermath of the conquest. See, among others, Elena Isabel Estrada de Gerlero, “Las utopías educativas de Gante y Quiroga (1992),” in Elena Isabel Estrada de Gerlero, Muros, sargas y papeles: imagen de lo sagrado y lo profano en el arte novohispano del siglo XVI (Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México [UNAM], 2011), 299–328.
A possible antecedent for the image of Testera is Diego de Valadés’s famous engraving of a Franciscan missionary instructing a group of Indigenous neophytes in his Rhetorica Christiana ad concionandi, et orandi usum accommodate … (Perugia, Italy: Pietro Giacomo Petrucci, 1579), fourth part, 211. https://archive.org/details/rhetoricachristi00vala/page/210/mode/2up.
Gerónimo de Mendieta, Historia eclesiástica indiana (1596), ed. Joaquín García Icazbalceta (Mexico City: Antigua Librería, 1870), 407–10. Mendieta penned his chronicle at the end of the sixteenth century, but it was not published until 1870 by Joaquín García Icazbalceta. In 1615 Juan de Torquemada published his own history, which drew extensively on Mendieta’s manuscript. Phelan, Millennial Kingdom, 111–12.
“Se aplicasen á deprender los oficios y artes de los españoles, que sus padres y abuelos no supieron, y en los que antes usaban se perficionasen.” Mendieta, Historia eclesiástica, 408.
“Esto se puede entender por regla general, que cuasi todas las buenas y curiosas obras que en todo género de oficios y artes se hacen en esta tierra de Indias (á lo menos en la Nueva España), los indios son los que las ejercitan y labran, porque los españoles maestros de los tales oficios, por maravilla hacen mas que dar la obra á los indios y decirles cómo quieren que la hagan. Y ellos la hacen tan perfecta, que no se puede mejorar.” Mendieta, Historia eclesiástica, 410.
Gerlero, “Las utopías educativas.”
Beate Fricke, “Matter and Meaning of Mother-of-Pearl: The Origins of Allegory in the Sphere of Things,” Gesta 51, no. 1 (2012): 39, 41.
These objects, of which some twenty have been identified to date, were generally cataloged as Flemish, German, Spanish, or Portuguese. Theodor Müller was the first to correlate them with Mexico based on their comparison with LACMA’s chalice; he also associated the works with the Franciscan and Hieronymite orders, given their imagery. Theodor Müller, “Das Altärchen der Herzogin Christine von Lothringen in der Schatzkammer der Münchner Residenz und verwandte Kleinkunstwerke,” Zeitschrift für Bayerische Landesgeschichte 35 (1972): 69–77. Philippe Malgouyres proposed that the tradition was relatively short-lived and that what he considers a small cluster of extant works were produced in workshops in Mexico City and Michoacán. Philippe Malgouyres, “Moines franciscains et sculpteurs indiens: à propos de quatre pendentifs mexicains conservés au musée du Louvre,” La Revue des Musées de France: Revue du Louvre 4 (2015): 34–48. Other recent authors to mention the tradition include Pablo F. Amador Marrero, “De Flandes y lo flamenco en la escultura temprana de la Nueva España,” in Homenaje a la profesora Constanza Negrín Delgado, ed. Carlos Rodríguez Morales (San Cristóbal de La Laguna, Spain: Instituto de Estudios Canarios, 2014), 33–35; Letizia Arbeteta Mira, “Joyas en el México virreinal: la influencia europea,” in La plata en Iberoamérica: siglos XVI al XIX, ed. Jesús Paniagua Pérez and Nuria Salazar Simarro (León, Spain: Vicerrectorado de Relaciones Internacionales, Universidad de León; Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2008), 425; and Jesús Pérez Morera, “La joya antigua en Canarias: análisis histórico a través de los tesoros marianos,” Anuario de Estudios Atlánticos 63 (2017): 27–30, http://anuariosatlanticos.casadecolon.com/index.php/aea/article/view/9920.
The front and back portray the Crucifixion and Deposition; the sides represent the Veronica, Flagellation, Man of Sorrows, and Christ Carrying the Cross.
Fricke, “Matter and Meaning of Mother-of-Pearl,” 44–47; Nicholas J. Saunders, “Biographies of Brilliance: Pearls, Transformations of Matter and Being, c. AD 1492,” World Archaeology 31, no. 2 (1999): 243–57; and Mónica Domínguez, “Pearl Fishing in the Caribbean: Early Images of Slavery and Forced Migration in the Americas,” in African Diaspora in the Cultures of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, ed. Persephone Braham (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2015), 73–82.
The two narrow sides of the Louvre pendant depict the Agony in the Garden and Flagellation, however these images are largely obstructed by the case’s columns. Malgouyres, “Moines franciscains,” 41.
Müller first made this observation in his analysis of Mexican microcarvings. Müller, “Das Altärchen,” 71.
For example, two Netherlandish prayer beads in the shape of skulls are in the Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (AGOID.29282 and AGOID.29283). Another known Mexican comparison is a rosary with skull-shaped beads at the Schnütgen Museum in Cologne. See Müller, “Das Altärchen,” figs. 33–36.
A lantern-shaped pendant with microcarvings was donated in 1574 by Guillén de Lugo Casaus to the Santuario de la Virgen de las Nieves in La Palma, Canary Islands. (He was a councilman of La Palma with familial ties to New Spain.) Pérez Morera, “La joya antigua en Canarias,” 28–29.
“Entallan esmeriles, y dentro dellos figurados todos los passos de la santa Passion de nuestro Redentor y Salvador Jesu Christo, que si no los huviera visto, no pudiera creer que Indios lo hazian.” Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (Madrid: Emprenta del Reyno, 1632), 249r. Although Díaz del Castillo completed his manuscript around 1568, it was only published in 1632. Cited in Teresa Castelló Yturbide, “La plumaria en la tradición indígena,” in El arte plumaria en México, ed. Teresa Castelló Yturbide (Mexico City: Fomento Cultural Banamex, 1993), 175, and Malgouyres, “Moines franciscains,” 46–47.
The artists that he mentions are Andrés de Aquino, Juan de la Cruz, and Crespillo. Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista, 249r. Scientific analysis could help determine the type of wood employed. Artists could have used zompantle (colorín or Erythrina americana), the thorns of the pochote (a type of ceiba), and possibly orangewood. Castelló Yturbide, “La plumaria,” 178.
“Labran el crystal muy primamente: y hazen beriles grandes y pequeños, dentro de los quales meten imagenes entalladas, de madera tan pequeñas, que en el espacio de una uña, figuran un Christo en cruz, con san Juan, y nuestra Señora a los lados, y la Madelena al pie; y en la misma madera, en la otra parte otras figuras, de manera que en el beril, haze dos hazes; que sino se viesse cada dia parece cosa impossible.” Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, Historia general de los hechos de los castellanos en las Islas i Tierra firme del mar Océano (Madrid: Emprenta Real, 1601), dec. 2, bk. 7, chap. 15, 248.
“Viril. s. m. Vidrio mui claro, y transparente, que se pone delante de algunas cosas, para reservarlas, ù defenderlas, dexandolas patentes à la vista. Pudo formarse del nombre Vidrio quasi Vidril.…Para que viessen las santas reliquias de aquel Seminario Angélico, y entre ellas la del dedo de Santa Teresa, que alli se venera dentro de un viril.” Diccionario de la lengua castellana en que se explica el verdadero sentido de las voces, su naturaleza y calidad … (Madrid: En la Imprenta de la Real Academia Española, por los Herederos de Francisco del Hierro, 1739), 6:494. According to Malgouyres, the word “esmeril” referred to the rock crystal that contained the carvings, which was worked with the dark, opaque, and abrasive emery (Malgouyres, “Moines franciscains,” 46–47). It seems more plausible, however, that the word stood for the object itself.
On this subject see Castelló Yturbide, El arte plumaria en México; Elena Isabel Estrada de Gerlero, “La plumaria, expresión artística por excelencia,” in México en el mundo de las colecciones de arte: Nueva España (Mexico City: Grupo Azabache, 1994), 1:73–117; Russo, Untranslatable Image, chaps. 1, 4, and 7; and Alessandra Russo, Gerhard Wolf, and Diana Fane, eds., Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe, 1400–1700 (Munich: Hirmer, 2015).
Here we depart from James Lockhart’s concept of “Double Mistaken Identity,” where he posits that each side of the cultural exchange was unaware or unimpressed by the other side’s interpretation of certain concepts or motifs that appeared familiar within their own traditions. James Lockhart, “Double Mistaken Identity: Some Nahua Concepts in Postconquest Guise,” in his Of Things of the Indies: Essays Old and New in Early Latin American History (1985; repr., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 98–99, 118.
Yanna Yannakakis, The Art of Being In-Between: Native Intermediaries, Indian Identity, and Local Rule in Colonial Oaxaca (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), introduction.
For the work’s history and iconography, see the catalog entry by Elena Estrada de Gerlero, Donna Pierce, and Claire Farago in Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521–1821, ed. Donna Pierce, Rogelio Ruiz Gomar, and Clara Bargellini, exh. cat. (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2004), cat. 1, pp. 94–102.
See Lewis Hanke, All Mankind is One: A Study of the Disputation between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974); Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Patricia Seed, “‘Are These Not Also Men?’: The Indians’ Humanity and Capacity for Spanish Civilisation,” Journal of Latin American Studies 25, no. 3 (1993): 629–52.
See also the discussion in Thomas B. F. Cummins, “The Indulgent Image: Prints in the New World,” in Katzew, Contested Visions, 208.
Barbara E. Mundy, The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan: The Life of Mexico City (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), 104–7. See also Russo, Untranslatable Image, 100–103.
Gerhard Wolf also argues that the pineapple, which was used to make a fermented drink (pulque) in Mexico, had associations with the eucharistic wine and the body of Christ. Gerhard Wolf, “Incarnations of Light: Picturing Feathers in Europe/Mexico, ca. 1400–1600,” in Russo et al., Images Take Flight, 72–84.
Mesoamerica refers to the densely settled precontact state societies that correspond to modern central and southern Mexico and the Central American highlands.
For more on this subject, see the fascinating study by Edward W. Osowski, Indigenous Miracles: Nahua Authority in Colonial Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010). See also Ilona Katzew, “‘Remedo de la ya muerta América’: The Construction of Festive Rites in Colonial Mexico,” in Katzew, Contested Visions, 151–75, esp. 166.
We borrow this term from James Lockhart, Susan Schroeder, and Doris Namala, eds. and trans., Annals of His Time: Don Diego de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), introduction, esp. p. 7.
Toribio de Benavente (Motolinía), Historia de los indios de la Nueva España, introduction by Claudio Esteva Fabregat (1536; repr., Madrid: Historia 16, 1985), 117, 123, 127, 132, 155, 185.
“Los aderezos de las andas hechas todas de oro y plumas, y en ellas muchas imágenes de las misma obra de oro y pluma, que las bien labradas se preciarían en España más que el brocado.” Motolinía, Historia de los indios, 127.
“Pónese el Santísimo Sacramento reverente y devotamente en sus custodias bien hechas de plata, y demás de esto los sagrarios atavían de dentro y de fuera muy graciosamente con labores muy lucidas de oro y plumas, que de esta obra en la tierra hay muy primos maestros, tanto que en España y en Italia los tendrían por muy primos y los estarían mirando la boca abierta, como lo hacen los que nuevamente acá vienen.” Motolinía, Historia de los indios, 117. On Italy’s textual and visual response to the Americas, see Lia Markey, Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016).
“La víspera de esta fiesta venían los señores al templo y traían un vestido nuevo, conforme al del ídolo, el cual le ponían los sacerdotes, quitándole las otras ropas y guardándolas en una caja, con tanta reverencia como nosotros tratamos los ornamentos eclesiásticos, en cuyas arcas o cajas había muchos aderezos, atavíos, joyas, preseas, brazaletas y plumas ricas que no servían de más que hacer valor y riqueza, ofrecida a este dios.” Juan de Torquemada, Monarquía indiana (1615; repr., Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, UNAM, 1975–83), 3: bk. 10, 372.
Saunders, “Biographies of Brilliance,” 245; Brendan Cory McMahon, Iridescence, Vision, and Belief in the Early Modern Hispanic World (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 2017), chap. 1.
The Aztec Triple Alliance refers to the federation of the three Nahua city-states of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. See Frances F. Berdan, “Economic Dimensions of Precious Metals, Stones, and Feathers: The Aztec State Society,” Estudios de cultura náhuatl 22 (1992): 291–323, esp. 318. For a magisterial synthesis of politics of the Aztec Triple Alliance, see Cecelia F. Klein, “Before the Conquest: Contested Visions in Aztec and Inca Art,” in Katzew, Contested Visions, 29–53, esp. 34–36. Other objects, such as rare stones that were worked into monumental sculptures and serpents and animal representations, were also rife with value and symbolism in preconquest times. We thank William B. Taylor for this observation.
Motolinía, Historia de los indios, 116–17, 127, 155.
“Quien quisiere verlas y entenderlas podrálo ver con sus ojos en las casas de los mesmos oficiales, pues que los hay y en todas las partes desta Nueva España.” Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, ed. Alfredo López Austin and Josefina García Quintana (Mexico City: CONACULTA, 2002), 2, bk. 9, chap. 21, 851.
“Un mar de tantas literarias tormentas,” from Lorenzo Boturini Benaducci’s Idea de una nueva historia general de la América septentrional (1746); cited in Ilona Katzew, “‘That This Should be Published and Again in the Age of the Enlightenment?’: Eighteenth-Century Debates about the Indian Body in Colonial Mexico,” in Race and Classification: The Case of Mexican America, ed. Ilona Katzew and Susan Deans-Smith (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 79.
See a discussion of this topic in Katzew, “‘That This Should be Published,’” 73–118, esp. 74–82.
“A mí me parece que viene alguno dellos de aquellas gentes y destras tribus de Israel. […] Usaban esta gente obra de pluma tejida en sus tabernáculos […] como aparece en la Sagrada Escritura; la cual ninguna de las naciones del mundo, hasta hoy, leemos que hayan tenido ni usado ni hayan sabido hacer, por la dificultad que tiene, si no son estos indios mexicanos y sus naciones. De donde se infiere que realmente éstos son judíos, porque con este ornato servían a sus dioses en sus templos.” Diego Muñoz Camargo, Relaciones geográficas de Tlaxcala, ed. René Acuña (1584; repr., San Luis Potosí, Mexico: El Colegio de San Luis, 1999), 128–29. For a discussion of Camargo’s transliteration of the biblical passage in the book of Exodus, see Russo, Untranslatable Image, 93–95.
See Berdan, “Economic Dimensions,” 291–323, esp. 307–8; Diana Fane, “Feathers, Jade, Turquoise, and Gold,” in Russo et al., Images Take Flight, 101–16. Also useful for understanding the significance of luxury arts in the ancient world is Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds., Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Getty Research Institute, 2017).
See Porfirio Martínez Peñaloza, “Notas sobre el origen de la minería y la metalurgia mexicanas,” in El arte de la platería mexicana, 13–41.
The Indigenous authors also noted that in preconquest times silver was rarely used as opposed to gold (though both metals were valued), but that at the time of penning the manuscript, silver was the most commonly employed of the two metals. Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Book 9: The Merchants, trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1959), 73–78. See Blanca E. Maldonado, “For Gods and Rulers: Metalworking in the Ancient Americas,” in Pillsbury et al., Golden Kingdoms, 19, 22.
“La sentencia deste capítulo no importa mucho, ni para la fe ni para las virtudes porque es prática meramente geométrica. Si alguno, para saber vocablos, maneras de decir exquisitas, podrá preguntar a los oficiales que trata de este oficio, que en todas partes los hay.” Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España 2, bk. 9, chap. 16, 843.
Cristina Esteras Martín, “Silver and Silverwork, Wealth and Art in Viceregal America,” in Rishel and Stratton-Pruitt, Arts in Latin America, 180.
“Lo mas rico, que al mercado se trahia, eran las obras de oro, y plata, unas fundidas, otras labradas de piedras, con tan gran primor, y sutileza, que muchos dellas, han puesto en admiracion a los muy diestros plateros de Castilla.” Herrera y Tordesillas, Historia general, dec. 2, bk. 7, chap. 15, 247.
“Sacavan al mercado los oficiales deste arte, platos, ochavados el un quarto de oro, y otro de plata, no soldados, sino fundidos, y en la fundicion pegado, cosa dificultosa de entender.” Herrera y Tordesillas, Historia general, dec. 2, bk. 7, chap. 15, 248.
Our thanks to John Hirx for this observation.
Berdan, “Economic Dimensions,” 306–7.
Sahagún, Florentine Codex, 9:80–81. Rock crystal is pure quartz and extremely hard.
The chalice’s rock crystal columns are worked on a lathe and held in a three-part setting. A flat sheet of gilded silver in the silhouette of a pilaster with tabs at top and bottom is behind the column. The column is held in place with a gilded silver base and Ionic capital, both of which are soldered to the pilaster. The four parts form a unit that inserts into the top and bottom portions of the knop. The glazings over the wood carvings are of blown glass, except the two corresponding to the scenes of the Agony in the Garden and the Flagellation, which are modern replacements. Our thanks to John Hirx for these observations.
Berdan, “Economic Dimensions,” 293.
“El cristal desta tierra se llama tehuílotl. Es piedra que se halla en minas, en las montañas.” Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España 3, bk. 11, chap. 8, 1120.
Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 11: Earthly Things, trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1963), 225.
“Su principal ydolatria siempre se fundó en adorar estas piedras juntamente con las plumas á las quales llamavan ‘sombra de los diosses’.” Diego Durán, Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e islas de Tierra Firme, ed. Rosa Camelo and José Rubén Romero (1576–81; repr., Mexico City: Cien de México; CONACULTA, 2002), 1: chap. 25, 259.
For a more in-depth discussion of the term “shadow” in this context, see Russo, Untranslatable Image, 175–77.
Diego Durán, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (1576–81; repr., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), chap. 28, 227.
Joanne Pillsbury, “Luminous Power: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas,” in Pillsbury et al., Golden Kingdoms, 6.
Motolinía, Historia de los indios, 185–86. Three extant sixteenth-century rock-crystal altar crosses are illustrated in El arte de la platería mexicana, cats. 4–5, pp. 128–31, and cat. 16, pp. 156–9.
Cynthia Hahn, Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), 216; and Stefania Gerevini, “Christus crystallus: Rock Crystal, Theology and Materiality in the Medieval West,” in Matter of Faith: An Interdisciplinary Study of Relics and Relic Veneration in the Medieval Period, ed. James Robinson and Lloyd de Beer, with Anna Harnden (London: British Museum, 2014), 94–95.
Gerevini, “Christus crystallus,” 92–93.
Pliny the Elder described this connection in his Natural History. Gerevini, “Christus crystallus,” 94, 98n15.
Gerevini, “Christus crystallus,” 94.
Joseph B. Mountjoy, “Iron Pyrite Ornaments from Middle Formative Contexts in the Mascota Valley of Jalisco, Mexico: Description, Mesoamerican Relationships, and Probable Symbolic Significance,” in Manufactured Light: Mirrors in the Mesoamerican Realm, ed. Emiliano Gallaga and Marc G. Blainey (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016), 157.
Sahagún, Florentine Codex, 9:80–81.
The feather backings behind the Apostles on the central knop are deteriorated but intact. On the foot, only the Entombment retains its feathers; in the other three lobes the feathers were replaced by a white backing paper.
“Esta pluma, puesta en la obra que los indios labran de oro y pluma, muéstrase de muchos colores: mirada ansí derecha parece como pardilla; vuelta un poco á la vislumbre parece naranjada; otras veces como llama de fuego.” Memoriales de fray Toribio de Motolinía: manuscrito de la colección del señor don Joaquín García Icazbalceta (Mexico City: Luis García Pimentel, 1903), 333. The author refers concretely to the feathers of the vicilin [sic] or vicicilin bird (from the Nahuatl huitzitzilin, hummingbird).
For a synthesis of the divergent understandings of iridescent materials or transient colors in Mexico and Spain in the early modern period, and how European ideas of the unreliability of sight impacted the reception of feather mosaics in seventeenth-century Europe, see McMahon, Iridescence, Vision, and Belief.
As stated by the Nahua annalist Chimalpahin; see Lockhart et al., Annals of His Time, 145.
For a discussion of “tactics” versus “strategy” to negotiate a battle among unequals, see Yannakakis, Art of Being In-Between, 10–11.
For a recent reassessment of the Florentine Codex, see the essays in Jeanette Favrot Peterson and Kevin Terraciano, eds., The Florentine Codex: An Encyclopedia of the Nahua World in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019). For Terraciano, Sahagún deliberately made omissions in the Spanish translation to avoid information that would offend Spanish readers—for example, descriptions of their greed and treacherous behavior. He suggests, however, that in the images (which he describes as a “third text”), the Nahua artists exerted more agency and illustrated concepts absent from the alphabetical Nahuatl-Spanish columns. See his essay “Reading between the Lines of Book 12,” 45–62.
Dean and Liebsohn, “Hybridity and Its Discontents,” 23.
See, for example, Lawrence Anderson’s comment: “for a full understanding of the colonial silversmiths’ art it is necessary to bear in mind that the art of the Indian silversmiths was not absorbed but destroyed and that the colonial silversmiths’ art was a branch of the Spanish art without a trace of Indian influence.” Lawrence Anderson, The Art of the Silversmith in Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), 1:147–48. Our thanks to Susan Deans-Smith for suggesting this source.
It is worth noting that the calyx, knop, foot, and components of the stem all present the Mexico City mark but not so the cup; this may be due to the fact it was a later replacement. An outer horizontal seam at the height of the calyx’s upper edge indicates that at some point the cup was cut and soldered back together—something that was fairly common as cups tended to get easily damaged due to use. The interior rod with grooves, used to secure the various components and prevent the chalice from wobbling, also seems to be a more modern replacement. For the use of hallmarks in general, see Cristina Esteras Martín, Marcas de platería hispanoamericana, siglos XVI–XX (Madrid: Ediciones Tuero, 1992), xi, xvi–xvii.
The weevil stamp signaled that the import tax was paid, the silver adhered to French standards, and the work was legally imported from one of the countries that had customs treatises with France. The other countries were: Aden (now part of Yemen), Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Crete, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, England, Egypt, French colonies, Hungary, Iran, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, Tripoli, Turkey, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia. The stamp is documented in Les poinçons de garantie internationaux pour l’argent (1942; repr. Paris: Tardy, 1995), 207. We wish to thank Rosie Mills for confirming the origin of these previously unidentified hallmarks. One of the weevil hallmarks was previously misinterpreted as a kneeling angel and thought to correspond to the artist’s mark (see Esteras Martín’s catalog entry in El arte de la platería mexicana, 152).
Useful here is Harold Dana Sims, The Expulsion of Mexico’s Spaniards, 1821–1836 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990).
Russo, Untranslatable Image, 26.
Art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, who sold to Hearst, characterized the newspaper magnate as an “accumulator,” rather than a serious collector. See David Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (New York: Mariner Books, 2001), 300. This understanding has largely persisted. In 2008 Mary L. Levkoff published the first serious assessment of Hearst as a collector, admitting that she had to overcome her own prejudices on the matter. See Levkoff, Hearst, 14.
In 1913 Hearst bought the two floors below the three he already owned at the Clarendon, located at 137 Riverside Drive. A two-floor gallery in this family residence was devoted to Spanish art, including a large collection of lusterware, a silver processional cross, and suits of armor. Hearst began working with architect Julia Morgan in 1919 on designs to build on his family’s land. He wanted to keep consistent with California’s Spanish heritage but preferred the Spanish Renaissance—with a dose of Moorish influences—over the local mission style. See Levkoff, Hearst, 46, 57 and Nasaw, The Chief, 292–93.
The chalice was likely shipped from Hearst’s Bronx warehouse, although internal LACMA documents also suggest that is was sent from London. We wish to thank Mary Levkoff for her expert assistance on this point.
The precise date when Hearst acquired the chalice from Harris is unknown. Thomas Michie has suggested that Hearst did frequent business with Harris in the 1920s. See Michie’s catalog entry in Levkoff, Hearst, 180. Records in the William Randolph Hearst Archive (Long Island University) show purchases from the Spanish Art Gallery from at least as early as 1912. Accessible via Artstor at https://www.artstor.org/collection/william-randolph-hearst-archive-long-island-university/.
María José Martínez Ruiz, “The Spanish Art Gallery, Londres: su papel en la difusión y dispersión del arte hispánico,” in Recepción, imagen y memoria del arte del pasado, ed. Luis Arciniega García and Amadeo Serra Desfilis (Valencia: Universitat de València, 2018), 393–95.
We thank María José Martínez Ruiz for sharing these observations with us. It is possible that Harris saw LACMA’s chalice during this trip. Along with metalwork, Harris also had particular interests in textiles and Flemish painting.
See Esteras Martín’s catalog entry in Rishel and Stratton-Pruitt, Arts in Latin America, 193. She has also identified another chalice in the collegiate church of Zafra, in Badajoz, Spain, with a similarly engraved bust, hidden from view.
See the illustrations in Cristina Esteras Martín, La platería en el reino de Guatemala: siglos XVI–XIX (San Gaspar Vivar, Guatemala: Fundación Albergue Hermano Pedro, 1994), cat. 20, p. 82; Cristina Esteras Martín, La platería de la Colección Várez Fisa: obras escogidas, siglos XV–XVIII (Madrid: Tf. Editores, 2000), cat. no. 76, pp. 196–99. Our thanks to Rosie Mills for this observation.