11383 A VERY RARE ‘SGRAFFITO’ DECORATED CALABASH BOX MOUNTED WITH FINELY CAST IRONWORK Oaxaca. Circa 1700. Measurements: Diameter: 8″ (20.3 cm) Height: 6 1/4″ (15.8 cm).

Of calabash gourd fitted with iron hinge and lock. The engraved decoration around the middle with alternating vignettes of forest animals and two double-headed eagles, framed by floral and geometric etched borders, the top centered by a floral design with seven lobed ‘petals,’ which are traced and cut out to form the lid of the box, fixed to the body of the gourd with the iron hinge and lock. One vertical fissure to body.

According to Dr. Gustavo Curiel of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM, the present piece represents “an extremely rare example” of a Mexican viceregal iron-mounted and relief-carved box made of a calabash gourd (Crescentia cujete). Its function relates to the alcancias, or money boxes, which appeared in colonial Mexico and South America in the 18th century and were typically made from coconuts mounted with silver. Its very fine quality, engraving and metalwork indicate a commission for a high-status individual from the viceregal Spanish elite.

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.”1

The present gourd is decorated around the middle with alternating vignettes of forest animals and two double-headed eagles, framed by floral and geometric etched borders. Following the Spanish invasion, the Aztec eagle was replaced by the displayed double-headed Imperial Eagle of the Habsburg dynasty, rulers of Spain. The motif was employed on churches and public buildings, as well as decorative art objects typically belonging to prominent or political members of society.

The top of the gourd is centered by a floral design with seven lobed ‘petals,’ which have been very carefully marked out and cut to form its lid. The rather geometric treatment of the blossom can be associated with representations of chrysanthemums, a flower originally native to China and Japan, found on Japanese decorative objects of the Momoyama period (1573-1615), which the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers would have shipped from abroad via the Manila Galleons from Manila in the Philippines, to Acapulco, Mexico between 1565 and 1815.

The decorative technique employed on the gourd is comparable to taracea (inlay) work on 17th century Oaxacan pieces such as caskets and writing cabinets, in which an incised design is filled in with a dark paste called zumaque. Figure 1 shows a detail of a Oaxacan casket, which, in addition to being decorated using this technique, employs geometric representations of flowers at the sides, as well as the double-headed eagle on the front.

The lid of the present piece is fixed to the body of the gourd with an iron hinge and lock. The intricate ironwork on Spanish Colonial furniture and objects 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.2 Given the exceptional 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. An example of a seventeenth century hinge and lock, of related circular form with perforated edge, is illustrated in figure 2, and is today in a private Mexican collection.

It is likely that the present piece was made in Pinotepa, a city in Costa Chica, the Pacific coastal region in the state of Oaxaca. In this area local craftsmen make rattles, jícaras (cups without handles), and other objects from coconuts and guaje (gourds), a practice that continues to this day. In fact, the name Oaxaca derives from the indigenous Nahuatl settlement called Huaxyacac, which means “the place of the gourds” or “where the gourds begin to grow.” Decoration of such objects was executed in lacquer or, like the present piece, by means of the etching the design into the surface of the gourd.

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. 88.


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