11000 A VERY RARE PAIR OF BARNIZ DE PASTO AND SILVER MOUNTED CASKETS Probably Pasto, Colombia, in the then- Viceroyalty of Peru. Late Seventeenth/ Early Eighteenth Century. Measurements: Box A: Height: 9″ (23 cm) Width: 13 1/4″ (33.5 cm) Depth: 7″ (17.5 cm) Box B: Height 8 3/4″ (22 cm) Width: 13 1/4″ (33.5 cm) […]

Of barniz de Pasto lacquer and silver mounts. Of rectangular form with domed lid, decorated on all sides with a geometric border enclosing flowers and foliage, and animals. Each corner fitted with silver mounts, and the sides and top fitted with silver handles. The whole raised on silver shell-form feet. Slight difference in size. Minor restorations to lacquer, one silver foot and circular backplate replaced.

The present pair of caskets is an outstanding example of eighteenth century barniz de Pasto furniture produced in Colombia and Ecuador during the Spanish colonization of South America. With the exception of Portuguese-controlled Brazil, the continent was ruled by the Spanish as the Viceroyalty of Peru from the mid-sixteenth century. The conquest was led in the 1520s and 1530s by Francisco Pizzaro, who defeated the Incan emperor Atahualpa at Cuzco and took over the Empire. Pizzaro set up the new capital at Lima, but the Viceroyalty was not fully established until the arrival of Francisco de Toledo in 1572. As viceroy, de Toledo acted as the king’s representative in the new world and oversaw the administration of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which was broken down into audencias (a body of magistrates who served as judges), gobernaciones (districts managed by a governor), and corregimientos (districts with an appointed mayor). He implemented various reforms regarding the religious conversion and labor requirements of the Incas and promoted economic development though the exploitation of natural resources, namely silver mines. When the house of Bourbon rose to the Spanish crown, they separated the territory to improve its administration and in 1717 created the Viceroyalty of New Granada, which included the present-day countries of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, and parts of Peru.

The caskets are decorated using a type of lacquer called barniz de Pasto, named for the southern Colombian town of San Jean de Pasto, one of the first centers of production, and the probable origin of this pair. The primary ingredient of this lacquer is mopa mopa, a pale-green resin derived from a tropical tree of the same name. To create the lacquer, small amounts of the resin were chewed or boiled, and organic pigments, made from plants and minerals, were embedded through kneading or chewing. These included indigo, annatto, saffron and lead oxide. The material was then boiled again until “sufficiently elastic to stretch into thin sheets,”1 which was done by two artisans, who pulled the mopa mopa from opposite ends with their hands and teeth. Decorative designs were cut out from the resulting sheets and applied to the wooden surfaces of household objects with heat, which, once cooled, formed a permanent and waterproof bond. The cut-outs could be stacked to create a design in relief, or incised to add further detail. Sometimes the thin sheets of lacquer were stretched over silver or gold leaf “to create a translucent sheen to these objects,”2 a technique referred to as barniz brillante. Figure 1 depicts two indigenous artisans at work creating objects in barniz de pasto, after a drawing by Achille Sirouy, illustrated in Édouard François André’s “L’Amerique equinoxiale” in Le Tour du Monde, 1879.

Two barniz de Pasto traditions developed independently in colonial South America. One originated in the Andean region of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, and mainly involved the production of ritual Incan drinking vessels called keros, with decoration typically organized in registers. The other lacquer tradition, “centered in Pasto and to a lesser extent in Quito, [was] characterized by European forms and motifs.”3 In a departure from the linear designs of earlier periods, these objects were distinguished by their elaborate figural compositions, the result of greater Spanish influence toward a more traditional European aesthetic.

It is this second, Europeanized category to which the present caskets belong, and they perfectly illustrate the cross-fertilization between Spanish forms and native ornament. The caskets take the traditional form of a Spanish domed arqueta (chest), popular in Spain and its colonies from the sixteenth through to the eighteenth century. Caskets of this type typically held precious personal effects, such as gloves or jewelry, and were usually listed in inventories under “Ladies’ Salons,”4 however, they could also be used in ecclesiastical functions, particularly the type made entirely of silver. Needless to say, such costly and sumptuous chests would only have been supplied for the ruling elite.

In general, the stylistic movements of the decorative arts of colonial Latin America followed those of Europe, from Renaissance to Neoclassical,5 and design sources brought to the Viceroyalty by way of prints, including rinceaux, grotesque, arabesque, and strapwork, were absorbed into the work of Andean decorative artists. They maintained loyalty to their native roots, however, through the incorporation of pre-Hispanic motifs. European plants and animals, for example, were supplanted by tropical fruits and indigenous flora and fauna such as puma, tropical birds, and coati.

The decoration of the present caskets is replete with references to the natural and supernatural native worlds. Each side of the caskets is ornamented with a tropical bird in flight above a large fruit. Birds were sacred to the Incas and their importance is reflected in the numerous species that populate decorative objects and textiles of the period, a pre-Hispanic tradition, which carried over into colonial art. On one casket, the fruit is a strawberry, depicted in an identical manner to those in a basket of fruits on a seventeenth/eighteenth century portable writing desk from Pasto in the collection of the Hispanic Society of America.6 The reverse sides of both chests are dominated by a large black dog or rodent. The front sides of each depict fantastical two-headed beasts in black lacquer, an amalgamation of man and various animals. They are surrounded by bulbous flowers, pomegranates, and scrolling vegetation in shades of red, green, brown. The pomegranate was first cultivated in the Middle East and brought to Spain, where the city of Granada (and subsequently the Viceroyalty of New Granada) was named after it. They were incorporated into the coat of arms of the Spanish monarchy when the last of the Muslims strongholds was conquered at Granada. Pomegranates were introduced to the Americas shortly after the conquest, and are a recurring motif in viceregal art.7 The caskets are also decorated with chrysanthemums, a flower originally native to China and Japan. The rather geometric treatment of the blossom can be associated with representations of chrysanthemums on Japanese decorative objects of the Momoyama period (1573-1615), which the Spanish colonizers would have shipped from abroad.

On the lid of the caskets, decorated with a foliate background in red, orange and brown, are pairs of black lions flanking the silver handle, above which flies a dove. The lids fit over two wooden semi-circles extending from the sides of the chest at either end, which probably served as dust protectors.8 This feature also appears on a late-seventeenth/early-eighteenth century barniz de Pasto chest from Pasto, Colombia, exhibited in the international 2006-2007 exhibition The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820, and today in a private collection (figure 2). A further example, with related design elements and silver mounts, is found in the Frederick and Jan Mayer collection at the Denver Museum of Art (figure 3).

The art of barniz de Pasto lacquer reached its pinnacle in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at the hands of indigenous and mestizo artisans of Pasto and Quito, who were called barnizadores. The first mention of lacquer in Pasto was recorded in 1666, and subsequent descriptions of lacquer objects and the techniques used to make them were recounted in contemporary accounts by various travelers to the region. In 1740 the explorers Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa visited the town and “remarked that barniz de pasto rivaled the best Asian lacquers in beauty, shine and durability of colors.”9 Indeed, the technique was often used to mimic Asian lacquerwork, which, due to the great wealth of the Viceroyalty, was imported to the continent.

The barniz de Pasto decoration of the caskets is further enhanced by their lavish and skillfully-crafted silver mounts. The chased hinges of the lid take the form of vines and on the front connect to a silver lock plate surrounded by conforming scroll decoration that recalls the mantling of a coat of arms. Each corner of the chest and lid is applied with a pierced arabesque mount and the four feet take the form of circular silver shells. The drop handles with a central knop on the sides and lid of the caskets are mounted onto quatrefoil plaques with borders of repoussé dots. There was no single artistic center in the viceroyalty with specialty in silversmithing, and it is likely that mounts were produced in the same general region as the lacquer.

In the fifteenth century, gold and silver deposits were discovered all across the Spanish territories from the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico and Central America) to the Viceroyalty of Peru, with major silver deposits in Colombia’s slopes of the Andes and the river basins of Cauca and Magdalena, and in Ecuador at Cuenca. However, the greatest quantities of silver were found in Alto Peru (Peru-Bolivia), particularly Mount Potosí. Called the cerro rico, or “rich mountain,” silver was first discovered in 1545, and “between 1570 and 1650 Potosi produced more than half the silver in the world.”10 The 1566 discovery of mercury in the region provided a vital ingredient for efficient refining of the silver ore. It became so well known as a symbol of wealth in both the new and old worlds that the phrase “rich as Potosí” or “worth a Potosí” was coined.

The mining and refining of gold and silver in South America had been in practice long before the arrival of the Spanish, however, it was not until colonization and the birth of cities that it became an economic activity. The experience of indigenous craftsmen, coupled with the abundance of precious metals available in the surrounding landscape, resulted in a rapidly growing and far-reaching industry. The level of mastery demonstrated by indigenous silversmiths was praised by contemporary chroniclers and, with the introduction of European tools and techniques they were “able to produce any object requested of them.”11 As demand for refined silver grew, the crown took great interest in regulating the industry, and a system of compulsory markings for quality control and taxation was imposed. However, to circumvent such a tarrif on the part of both silversmith and patron, these marks were “systematically avoided.”12

It is exceptionally rare to have a pair of barniz de Pasto caskets, and the present example is the only extant one known to us.


  1. Rishel, Joseph J, and Suzanne L. Stratton. The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006. 107.
  2. Pierce, Donna. Companion to Spanish Colonial Art at the Denver Art Museum. Denver, CO: Mayer Center for Pre-Columbian & Spanish Colonial Art at the Denver Art Museum, 2011. 19.
  3. Rishel, 107.
  4. Las Artes Del Nuevo Mundo. Madrid: Coll & Cortés, 2011. 154.
  5. Rishel, 99.
  6. Ibid., 131. Catalog No. I-22.
  7. “The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe,” Taos & Albuquerque – Vol 20. http://www.collectorsguide.com/fa/fa115.shtml
  8. Rishel, 132.
  9. Ibid., 107.
  10. Querejazu, Pedro, and Elizabeth Ferrer. Potosi í: Colonial Treasures and the Bolivian City of Silver. New York: Americas Society Art Gallery in association with Fundacio ón BHN, La Paz, 1997. 15.
  11. Rishel, 180.
  12. Phipps, Elena, Johanna Hecht, Marti ín C. Esteras, and Luisa E. Alcala á. The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. 70.

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