Chocolate cup (jícara)
Place Depicted: South America, possibly Peru
15.1 x 8.5 x 5.2 cm (5 15/16 x 3 3/8 x 2 1/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
Silver mounted coconut shell
William J. Fitzgerald Gallery (Gallery 135)
The cast tripod base has a clawlike foot that passes through a central baluster knop as well as cast and chased leaves that grace the base of the bowl; the whole is bolted to base. A silver band encircles the rim and is secured with a few small flat-headed nails.
Cacao plants, the source of chocolate, originated in the Southern Hemisphere. This delicious drink was consumed by the Mayans as early as 150 B.C., and in the following centuries it became a popular beverage among many indigenous groups. The Spanish enthusiastically adopted it in the postconquest era. To create a Western-style form of the traditional mate cup, colonists improvised by using gourds, nuts, wood, and other organic materials already in use, to which they added European-style bases, handles, and rims made of silver. The form differs from indigenous mate cups, which have a narrow opening at the rim to hold the bombilla, or straw. The Peruvian jícara, or chocolate cup, features a wider rim that enabled the drinker to lift the vessel to the lips. Footed cups such as this example were made throughout South America and differ markedly from another version called a mancerina, which was found primarily in New Spain. Designed more like a cup and saucer, the mancerina contained a circular receptacle at the center to receive a ceramic or glass cup and included a wide saucer to hold pastries.
The surface of some jícaras display elaborate designs. Many chocolate cups were made from coconut shells, an extremely dense nut that lends itself well to fine carving and polishing. A fine Mannerist scroll pattern has been lightly engraved on the surface. Close inspection reveals that the design is not aligned with the silver leaves that support the cup. Such discrepancies appear to be common among these vessels, suggesting that the carver and the silversmith worked independently.
The etymology of the present-day term jícara to describe such chocolate cups may be derived from the Nahuatl word xicalli. When adopted by the colonists and transformed into Creole, a Spanish dialect, the word may have been altered to jícara.
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.
Gift of Miss Ellen Graves, Mrs. Samuel Cabot and Mrs. Roger Ernst in memory of their father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Edmund P. Graves