Object Place: Moxos or Chiquitos Missions, Alto Peru, Present-day Bolivia
42.3 x 30.3 x 3.4 cm (16 5/8 x 11 15/16 x 1 5/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
William J. Fitzgerald Gallery (Gallery 135)
The rectangular, repousséd, and chased silver plaque bears, at center, a raised circular reserve with the letters “IHS” surmounted by a cross that straddles the letter H; below is a winged heart from which appear three nails. A sunburst radiates outward and downward to the rectangular plaque, which bears scrolled, foliate
decoration. Among the elements on the plaque are a pair of nudes holding palm fronds; a single cherubim who flies over the name “MARIA”; two pairs of cherubim in each of the four corners; pomegranates; a pair of herons; two figures wearing hats; and a lower central figure with arms upraised. A hole used to secure the sheet to a frame appears in each of the four corners. Two diamond-shaped reserves suggest that precious stones may have originally adorned the plaque.
By virtue of its bold, repousséd central sun, this small plaque was probably the primary element in an altar frontal at a Jesuit church. The letters “IHS” displayed on the sunburst are a contraction of the ancient Greek spelling of Jesus, “ΙΗΣYΣ,” that, by the Middle Ages, was frequently seen in abbreviated form as “IHΣ” and “HIS.” The Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, was formed in 1540 by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The saint chose “IHS” as the order’s emblem, with a cross above the H and three nails below, encircled by rays of sunlight. The rays refer to the consecrated Host, a symbol of the body of Christ and, by extension, the Jesuit brotherhood itself. Variations of this imagery were widely employed for many Roman Catholic ritual goods as well as for this particular religious order.1 The curiously knotted quality of the lettering, strung along a taut ropelike line, may refer to the Flagellation, which, like the nails, is related to the Passion of Christ.
The Jesuits were the last such brotherhood to arrive in the Spanish South American colonies, establishing themselves in the viceroyalty of Peru by 1568. This plaque was probably made for a Jesuit church in the Moxos or Chiquitos region in present-day Paraguay, where the Jesuits established missions in 1691. It may have been for a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, for her name appears above that of Christ. The winged heart of Jesus, although not directly associated with Jesuit imagery, is shown here in its dual nature as both divine and human. Among the various angelic figures are nudes holding palm fronds as symbols of peace. The lower figure, with large sleeves and a hooded cowl, is probably a variant of an archangel.
Flanking the center of the plaque are pomegranates, a fruit with a hard exterior and tiny red corpuscles of juice within. During the Middle Ages, pomegranates were considered to be a symbol of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. In this case, they can also be interpreted as a symbol for Granada, Spain, where the fruit can be found and whose coat of arms is dominated by its image. For the Spanish, the pomegranate was an important symbol of victory. Granada was the last major stronghold of the Moors, Muslims of mixed Spanish, Arab, and Berber descent who struggled against the Christians for control of the Iberian Peninsula for more than six hundred years. In 1492 Granada was reclaimed by Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella shortly before Columbus received their approval to seek a passage to China. Thus the pomegranate carries multiple meanings for the Spanish. Beyond the symbol of the Passion, this unusual fruit served as a secular and, in this context, a particularly spiritual victory over the infidel Muslims.
The two curious figures wearing hats are fantastic androgynous figures that have been called mermaid-angels by Spanish scholars. Shown from multiple viewpoints as they twist and turn, these winged creatures have female breasts and Andean features under their conquistador-style hats. Mayan speech scrolls emerge from their mouths, and a foliate tail completes the form. Although related to grotesqueries of the Mannerist era, these remarkable forms represent a unique fusion of European and local aesthetics.
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.
“MARIA” in overlapping letters chased on oval boss, near top of plaque. “IHS” in stylized foliate letters repousséd and chased on a large, circular central reserve.
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