11317 A RARE EXOTIC MEXICAN VICEREGAL INLAID AND ENGRAVED MARQUETRY COFFER Villa Alta, Oaxaca. Second Half Of The Seventeenth Century. Measurements: Height: 11 1/2″ (29 cm); Width: 14 1/4″ (36 cm); Depth: 9″ (23 cm).

Of linaloe wood. Of rectangular form, decorated on four sides with marquetry and zumaque-filled engraving . The interior and exterior lid of conforming decoration. The whole raised on four replaced turned bun feet. Some veneers reattached. Small losses reinstated.

The present coffer is a good example of much prized 17th century marquetry furniture produced in Villa Alta de San Ildefonso, a town north of Oaxaca, Mexico, during the Spanish colonization of the country.

In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish conquest of Mexico during the reign of Charles V of Spain brought a viceregal and military presence to what was then referred to as “New Spain.” Beginning in 1521 and lasting three hundred years, the colonial period in Mexico subjugated the native Indian populations and their natural resources, and the result was a blending of cultures that produced a wealth of goods. “On the heels of the conquistadors there followed colonizers, merchants, and artisans and workers in different specialties, all of whom arrived with their beliefs and ambitions. New cities such as Puebla, Valladolid, Oaxaca, and Guadalajara blossomed.”1 Monastic orders were established, including Dominican, Franciscan and Augustan, which played an important role in the spread of religion, artistic techniques, and even the naming of Indian villages. The region of Oaxaca was mainly Dominican and, in addition to evangelizing the area, their monastic work was highly important to the transfer of European technology through the construction of churches, religious objects such as altarpieces, and other furniture.

The town of Villa Alta de San Ildefonso is located in the northern mountainous area of Oaxaca state known as the Sierra Zapoteca. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the area was already home to several indigenous Indian groups. The town was founded in 1526 by a small group of Spanish soldiers and their native Mexican allies, led by Captain Gaspar Pacheco. After struggling for months to pacify the local Zapotecs, Pacheco and his men finally quelled the resistance, and started building their base. Villa Alta is a prime example of the many military outposts cum cities in Mexico. The Spanish headquarters was named for Saint Ildefonsus, patron of Toledo (Pacheco’s hometown) and the dedication was held on his feast day, January 23. In the 17th century, the work of the chief administrators of the town, such as the mayors, was instrumental in turning Villa Alta into a place of importance. It was a major center for the production of rich cotton fabrics and came to be considered a very wealthy area. The trade in local woods, of which there was a wide range, was also fundamental to the economy and we know from a number of household inventories and wills that Villa Alta was a renowned furniture production center.

Small, portable writing cabinets and pieces like the present coffer undoubtedly derived from so called “German boxes,” which were spectacularly decorated with inlaid woods made in Augsburg and Nuremberg, and widely admired and exported to other parts of Europe. Pieces that were sent to the Spanish court as luxury items made their way across the Atlantic “as part of the household furnishings of prominent individuals who moved to New Spain.”2 Although the ornamental and technical aspects differ, boxes made in Oaxaca are the direct descendants of pieces made in German production centers. Like the present coffer, many of these featured domed lids and decorative geometric borders surrounding each side. Figure 1 depicts a coffer of comparable form to the present piece, also from Villa Alta, in the collection of the Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico, with a decorative border of very similar ‘starburst’ design.

Although it is unknown whether Villa Alta had one or several workshops in place, it is clear that the cabinetmakers were highly skilled in “painstakingly [creating] these pieces using countless precise cuts and inlays”3 to create geometric and figural patterns on furniture. Decoration using grana cochineal (a red dye made from cochineal insects used in textiles, saddlery, and cabinetmaking) and sumac paste to fill a prearranged engraved design was particular to the region of Oaxaca during the seventeenth and eighteenth century and was only used on items such as desks, chests, and boxes. The methods were “closely linked to the town of Villalta…[as] San Ildefonso was a major production center of grana cochineal during the Viceroyalty.”4

“The scenes and anthropomorphic figures depicted on this [type of] furniture are of a conspicuously secular nature, and include richly dressed ladies and courtiers.”5 As the city was initially populated almost exclusively by Europeans, their influence was transferred into Mexican craftsmanship through woodcuts and illustrations. The two figures on the present coffer are outfitted in 17th century European dress, probably taken from engravings that made their way to the colony. However, the interest of the original and second-generation Mexican population to claim the land as their own and differentiate themselves from the Spanish also resulted in a body of imagery that included indigenous flora, fauna and people, intended to strengthen the position of the Criollos (people of Spanish descent born in America).

The primary scene decorating the front of the coffer shows the courtly pursuit of hunting, in which two gentleman are stalking a rabbit; one aims a gun at the animal while the other bends down to retrieve it. The theme of game animals is repeated on the lid of the coffer; the top of the box is engraved with dogs and birds, while inside a deer and two hares are represented. Often, “the deer represents the soul fleeing through the forest,”6 eventually stopping from exhaustion and thirst to drink from a spring or fountain, symbolic of eternal salvation.

A vast array of plant life is figured on Villa Alta furniture, including trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables, and is “primarily Mestizo in nature,”7 meaning it employs both native and European species. On the present coffer, vegetation appears in all four of the scenes. The back of the coffer is centered by what appears to be a tobacco plant, called by its Aztec name, yetl, in Mexico. The plant was already widely spread throughout the Americas at the time of the Spanish conquest, and the state of Oaxaca was said to produce some of the best tobacco.8 The plant is flanked to each side with a grouping of three date palms. The scenes on both sides of the coffer each depict a parrot sitting in a leafy tree.

The intricate ironwork on Villa Alta furniture served both functional and aesthetic roles. Not only did the hinges, handles and locks hold the various components together, the openwork and engraved designs indicated their expensive nature and status as a luxury item.9 Given the magnificent quality of the ironwork, it is believed that it was done in Oaxaca, as only there did the technology and ability of a major ironwork industry exist. “[Iron] objects demonstrate a thorough understanding of the technique as well as vast creativity, captured in countless designs that often boast what can be described as metallic lace, a quality that is not surprising if we take into account the flexibility of Oaxacan iron as well as ancient indigenous metalwork traditions.10 Occasionally, the ironwork would be gilded to enhance the value of a piece.


  1. Miranda, D. Hector, and Houston Staff Museum of Fine Arts. The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures from the Museo Franz Mayer=la Grandeza Del Mexico Virreinal: Tesoros Del Museo Franz Mayer. New York: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2002. p. 11.
  2. Curiel, Gustavo, et al. Taracea Oaxaquen: El Mobiliario Virreinal De La Villa Alta De San Ildefonso. S.l.: Artes De Mexico Y Del Mundo, 2012. Print. 80.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Corrales, Juan M. Muebles Virreinales Oaxaqueños Realizados en Zumaque. Dialectology and Traditions, National Research Council, CSIC, Madrid. 2008.
  5. Curiel, 75.
  6. Ibid, 84.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Terry, T P. Terry’s Guide to Mexico: The New Standard Guidebook to the Mexican Republic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1923. lxxvi.
  9. Curiel, 88.
  10. Miranda, 332.


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