Object Place: Mexico City, Mexico
Medium or Technique
William J. Fitzgerald Gallery (Gallery 135)
The circular paten has been raised into a shallow concave form; a center point has been incised as an asterisk on its underside. The concave side of the paten has been gilded.
Dating Mexican silver is somewhat easier than most Latin American objects because of an assaying system established by royal decree in the viceroyalty of New Spain. However, few objects carry the full complement of required marks, and other means are needed to fully understand the silver. Stylistic analysis of the form and the delicate, flat, Mannerist strapwork decoration of this chalice suggest a fabrication date of about 1600. A published example of the crowned “M” Mexico City location mark helps date the paten to the same period.
The chalice is one of seven ecclesiastical items unearthed in St. Augustine, Florida (see History) in the late nineteenth century. Long thought to be Spanish and only recently recognized as Mexican, the vessels are a rare and early body of church silver made for Spain’s North American colonies. St. Augustine was colonized by Spain in 1565, making it the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States. The town’s strategic location on the Gulf Stream, where it protected Spanish vessels laden with South American silver en route to Europe, prompted Spain to provide financial support, which extended to the spiritual life of the inhabitants. From the beginning, religious and daily life in St. Augustine were interwoven. Upon his arrival, founder Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519 – 1574) brought “eight church bells and four ornaments for celebrating Mass.” When Spain became responsible for the colony, funding for the clergy and the goods required for the celebration of Mass were included in the annual budget for Florida’s military garrison. Between the late sixteenth and later eighteenth centuries, most sacramental goods were purchased from Mexico. Proximity was a primary reason, for, in the age of sail, communication was slow. More compelling, however, was the financial incentive — revenues collected in Mexico provided the budget that sustained the Florida colony.
The early date of the chalice and its survival are remarkable given the many dangers through which it passed. How and when it came to be buried at some distance from the parish church of St. Augustine may never be fully determined, but the following events could account for some of its movements.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, St. Augustine was often attacked by English soldiers. During some assaults, such as South Carolina’s unsuccessful six-week siege in 1702, church goods were moved for safekeeping into a fortress called the Castillo de San Marcos. In 1763, when Florida was awarded to the British as a consequence of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War), all moveable church property was shipped to Havana, Cuba; an inventory from the next year records that these items included a “copón [cup] without a foot, silver and gilded on the inside,” a description similar to the chalice in this entry. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 returned Florida to the Spanish, and the ecclesiastical goods were repatriated. An inventory taken in 1787 mentions chalices but lacks details that could identify this example.
St. Augustine joined the United States in 1821, and the parish found itself without financial support due to the separation of church and state under U.S. law. This stressful period was compounded by a largely anti-Catholic Protestant population that had emerged during the years of British occupation and renewed Spanish ownership. Chief among this group was District Attorney Alexander Hamilton Jr. (1786 – 1875), who argued that property of the Roman Catholic Church under the Spanish crown should pass to the U.S. government. Such rhetoric may have prompted church members to quietly relocate the chalice along with the rest of the ecclesiastical silver.
In 1823 Hamilton ran for the office of Territorial Delegate of Florida. Minorcan Catholics, an ethnic Spanish immigrant group affiliated with St. Augustine parish from the time of British occupation, sent a petition to President James Monroe protesting that Hamilton had threatened his opponents with unfavorable decisions on land claims. The name of Bernardo Segui appeared at the top of the document. Segui served as president of the Board of Wardens, which was incorporated that year by the Florida Legislative Council as trustee-proprietors of parish property. He also owned a plantation house on the land purchased in 1871 by the donors of these two objects. It is on this land that the church silver was discovered in 1879.
Church officials had reason to fear the loss of their silver, for the attitude of the Protestant majority was unsympathetic to their culture; upon seeing the communion objects at St. Augustine church in 1827, author and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in his diary that they appeared to him as “great coarse toys.” Church wardens had access to the church building and its furnishings, and it was not uncommon for them to house such items. Segui may have sought to protect the sacred silver items from falling into government hands.
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.
Fragment of "M" crowned mark for Mexico City on underside.
By 1878, unearthed from property on Oneida Street, St. Augustine, Florida, by property owners William H. Keith (b. 1803 - d. 1885) and Harriet Lovett Keith (b. 1837 - d. 1917), St. Augustine and exhibited at Bigelow, Kennard and Co., Boston; 1880, placed on loan to the MFA; passed by descent and in 1928, given to the MFA. (Accession Date: August 21, 1928)
NOTE: It is not known when this object, along with six other pieces of ecclesiastical silver (MFA accession nos. 28.464 – 28.470) was buried. The cross (28.468) is inscribed with the date 1721 and the name of the Spanish governor and captain general of Florida, Antonio de Benavides (1718 – 1734). It has been suggested that the silver was buried after Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821, in response to fears that the U.S. government might seize church property. See Jeannine Falino, Silver in the Americas, 1600-2000. American Silver in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA, Boston, 2008), pp. 465-466, cat. no. 370, and pp. 524-525, Appendix I.
Gift in memory of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Keith