Ornamental plaque (mariola or maya)
Object Place: Possibly La Paz or Lake Titicaca region, Alto Peru
54.7 x 40 x 1 cm (21 9/16 x 15 3/4 x 3/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
The plaque is decorated in an overall, bilaterally symmetrical pattern of foliate strapwork fashioned as openwork decoration. A stylized scallop shell forms the peak; above the center is a raised oval reserve, oriented vertically, that bears a chased image of the crossed papal keys surmounted by a feathery two-tiered crown. These symbols rest within a larger escutcheon framed by broken scrolls. The interior of the escutcheon has a punched background; two diamond-shaped holes once held precious stones. Two figures flank the central reserve, and two birds with long necks and slender beaks, possibly herons, flank the lower corners.
Ornamental plaques such as this played an important role in Latin American churches of the colonial period. Made in large numbers, the plaques were attached at the rear to a wooden pole and set into a massive, stepped altarpiece that faced the congregation. When lit by candlelight and accompanied by silver candlesticks, altar frontals, paintings, and sculpture, they created a formidable, flickering presence. This example, the earliest of the group in the Museum’s collection, features the crossed papal keys and tiara associated with the papacy. The keys are an attribute of St. Peter, the first pope, who symbolically received the keys of the church from Christ. Their presence indicates that the plaque was probably made for a cathedral rather than a mission or church in Alto Peru. The delicate openwork pattern is a rare survival; the form was originally backed with velvet or silk to enhance its appearance.
The figures on the plaque conflate several popular forms in Spanish colonial imagery. With their leafy hats, the characters are related to the so-called hombres verdes, or green men, whose forms spout verdant foliate decoration. Their dress resembles that of archangels, with squared-neck garments, flaring sleeves, and prominent boots with bosses below the knee, as seen in paintings and sculpture. The figures’ broad noses, seen in profile, suggest that the silversmiths also blended images of indigenous peoples into the fanciful composite forms.
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.
April 14, 1975, sold by Alphonse Jax (dealer), New York, to Landon T. Clay, Boston [see note]; 1992, gift of Landon T. Clay to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 24, 1992)
NOTE: According to Alphonse Jax at the time of the sale, this entered the United States from Argentina and was cleared by U.S. Customs on April 7, 1975 (first lent to the MFA on April 10, 1975). The donor, however, later recalled that he purchased it from the Edward Merrin Gallery, New York.
Gift of Landon T. Clay