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An important Spanish colonial Barniz de pasto lacquer casket with the Jesuit IHS monogram and silver mounts

Colombia, 1625-1650

L. 13.3 x W. 6.9 x H. 8.4 cm

The surface of the casket has been richly decorated in colourful barniz de pasto lacquer. The subject matter of the decoration involves, at the front; a boy riding a fantasy animal, a monkey with a human face and a bonnet playing the guitar, at the back; a predator catching a rabbit, another animal with a human face wearing a bonnet, at one side; a human figure coming out of a horn-shell, at the other side; a bird coming out of a horn-shell, the lid with two lions and all over, various birds among scrolling vines with exotic flowers and leaves. The inside of the lid is decorated with the monogram IHS, an abbreviation of the name of Jesus Christ, with a cross, and a heart pierced by three nails. This symbol was adopted by Ignatius of Loyola as general of the Jesuit Society of Jesus. Lock missing.

The indigenous lacquer traditions in Mexico and Colombia started because the demand in Spain and Spanish America for expensive Asian lacquerware exceeded the supply brought from Asia to Acapulco on the Manila galleons. Therefore, artisans in Mexico and Colombia began to apply their skills to the production of local lacquerware.

Barniz de Pasto is a lacquer-like technique made of plant extract, called mopa mopa, a translucent pale green natural sticky resin applied to wood. Mopa mopa is obtained from the garbanzo-bean-sized leaf buds of the mopa mopa tree (Elaegia pastoenis Mora), native to the tropical rain forests of southwest Colombia. The indigenous people of the Sibundoy Valley supplied the resin-covered leaf buds, pressed into blocks, to the lacquer artisans in Pasto. The long process of working the raw mopa mopa began with removing all impurities, then small amounts of the gummy resin were chewed or boiled in water to make it sufficiently elastic to stretch it into thin sheets by pulling in opposing directions by hands and teeth. Finally, the very thin sheets were applied with heath to a wooden object. The resulting layer provided an exceptionally durable, waterproof surface, impervious to most organic solvents and ready to be decorated.

The naturalist-explorers Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa visited Pasto in 1740 and remarked that barniz de Pasto ‘rivalled the best Asian lacquers in its colours’ beauty, shine, and durability.’

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