Ornamental plaque (mariola or maya), one of a pair

1725–1750


Object Place: Moxos or Chiquitos missions, Alto Peru (present-day Bolivia)

Dimensions

43.81 x 30.48 cm (17 1/4 x 12 in.)

Accession Number

1992.345

Medium or Technique

Silver

On View

William J. Fitzgerald Gallery (Gallery 135)

Collections

Americas

Classifications

Silver

The shaped ornamental plaque has a bilaterally symmetrical design of flowers and birds, with a central elliptical boss. The letters “IHS” are chased on the boss, and a cross surmounts the broad letter H; below the letters are three nails that converge. The ellipse is surrounded by a scrolled mantling. Several holes appear along the central axis of each plaque.


A dynamic baroque energy flourishes amid the formal symmetry of these plaques and the pair that follows (cat. no. 378). Derived stylistically from repousséd sconces of northern Europe, the heavily worked surface, hyper-realistic forms, and dense design mark these examples as a vigorous synthesis of European and native aesthetics. As with the previous plaque, this pair was probably made for a Jesuit church, possibly near Moxos or Chiquitos, home of the Guaraní peoples of Paraguay.
The intensely repousséd and chased flowers on these plaques, the following pair, and the missal stand (cat. no. 379) are rendered in a northern European – style composition typically composed of tulips and other cultivated Western blossoms. The silversmiths who produced these plaques appear to have depicted indigenous passion flower (mburucuyà), no doubt for their relevance to Guaraní society. Stylized drawings of the flower had been made by 1609 and 1610 that relate to the flowers depicted here. The Jesuits often adapted cultural elements of their hosts to convey the tenets of Christianity.
The passion flower was known for its sedative properties, and it was used by Guaraní shamans to achieve a dreamlike state. To gain coverts among the Guaraní, Jesuit priests assumed the messianic role of great shaman (karai). According to native beliefs, the flower was also thought to be favored by the Sun and linked with rebirth or resurrection. In Latin America, the Roman Catholic Church had appropriated the symbol for its own purposes, long before the arrival of the Jesuits, linking it to the Passion of Christ. The insistent repetition of the flower on these plaques is indicative of the Guaraní, who lacked a figurative tradition but emphasized pattern as a means of conveying a larger cosmology. Gauvin Bailey has advanced the theory that the Guaraní absorbed Roman Catholicism because their beliefs enabled them to see the spirit of their gods in many forms.2 Given this perspective, it seems reasonable to assume that the plaques were made by native silversmiths working in a Western idiom to please the Jesuits while remaining faithful to their precontact worldview.

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.

Inscription

IHS repoussed and chased on central elliptical boss.

Markings

None.

Provenance

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.

Credit Line

Gift of Landon T. Clay