Holy water vessel (aspersorium)
Object Place: Colombia
21 x 20.5 x 17.5 cm (8 1/4 x 8 1/16 x 6 7/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
William J. Fitzgerald Gallery (Gallery 135)
The raised vessel is composed of a broad lower section that curves inward before extending upward and outward in a series of six large, repousséd demilunes, or scallops, that form the rim. Two gilded bosses, probably original, are cast with a face in the green-man style — here a man’s face surrounded by a narrow band of petals. Each head is surmounted by loops that originally served to secure the handle, now missing. The vessel was originally circular but is now elliptical.
Freely chased, flat, foliate decoration is set within the triangular and circular sections of the bowl, whereas the demilunes at the rim are smoothly planished. A large tear in the vessel was repaired long ago, and the circular stepped foot may be a replacement.
A bowl such as this, with tall curved handles, typically serves the Christian church as a vessel for holy water. It is usually paired with a hyssop, a small rod named for the herb used by the ancient Jews to sprinkle water on worshippers. The hyssop’s long handle rested within one of the lobes at the vessel’s rim. The priest carries the aspersorium and hyssop during church services, using them to sprinkle holy water on congregants.
Many such vessels have survived, although few retain their handles and accompanying hyssops. Examples were made throughout Latin America, and most share the lobed rim, cast handle loops, and simple foot seen on this example. Some have a taller, more elegant urn shape than this broad variant; still others more closely resemble large buckets. Published examples include highly repousséd and chased forms as well as simpler works bearing engraved dedications.
With an emphasis on the large encircling planished lobes, this aspersorium recalls Portuguese two-handled cups of the seventeenth century. Such vessels may have been brought to Brazil, Portugal’s South American colony, where they influenced silversmiths at work in the Spanish-speaking regions. In New England, where sailing ships regularly departed for the Dutch colony Surinam, north of Brazil, among other distant ports, a lobed bowl made by Jeremiah Dummer has long intrigued scholars for its similarity to this distinctive form.
With its lobed shape, answered from below by reverse curves that rise from the base, as well as its boldly chased strapwork, the aspersorium resembles at least two other published examples that have been attributed to Colombia.
This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.
Collected in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by Mr. and Mrs. Edmund P. Graves between 1898 and 1913; 1941, gift to the museum from Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Cabot.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Cabot, in memory of Helen N. Cabot