Inventory no.: 1072

Spanish Colonial Vinajeras, Philippines


Rare Silver-Gilt Altar Cruets (Vinajeras) with the Emblem of the Franciscan Order

Spanish Colonial Philippines

18th century

height: 10.4cm, combined wight: 262g

This pair of silver-gilt cruets was commissioned by a wealthy church of or monastery belonging to the Order of St Francis (the Franciscans) from a leading silver-smith, judging by the exceptional casting and chasing work, most probably in eighteenth century Philippines. Cruets such as these were use used in the Catholic Holy Mass to hold water and wine.

Each stands on a flared, circular foot, has an elongated, globular body which flares to a spouted mouth with a hinged undulating cover. The cover of one is surmounted by a ‘V’ an abbreviation for

Vinum, which is Latin for wine. The other is surmounted by the letter ‘A’, for Aqua, or water.

The bodies of both are beautifully decorated in high relief with scrolling and overlapping vines and flowers. Both also are cast and chased with the emblem of the Franciscans, which consists of the crossed arms of Christ and St. Francis with the image of the cross behind it. The clothed arm represents that of Jesus; the unclothed is that of St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) who founded the Order of St Francis in 1210.

A Philippines’ provenance is suggested by several stylistic pointers. Both vessels have similar foliage and stems although the layout differs slightly, but the vessel for the

vinum or wine is chased with flowerheads that appear to be stylised peonies, whereas the aqua vessel is decorated with stylised rose flowerheads. The latter can be seen on a silver mid-nineteenth century sweetmeats tray from central Luzon, illustrated in Henkel (2009, p. 126).

The complex stylistic arrangements of overlapping stems and leaves that curl back over stems has parallels in an eighteenth century wooden

retablo or Catholic altar from eastern Visayas illustrated in Henkel (2009, p. 82). This altar incorporates Malay-inspired scrolling foliage with Catholic elements and includes the crossed arms symbol of the Franciscan Order. Parallels also can be seen between the scrolling foliage and stems with that often found on the velvet gowns that adorned images of saints in Philippines’ churches, gowns that were richly embroidered with complex leaf and stem patterns in gold-wrapped thread.

The rendering of the Franciscan emblem is unusual. The stylised orchid motif beneath the crossed arms is peculiar to the Philippines. Elsewhere a ribbon or a cloud motif is used, but the Filipino taste for embellishment, which is heavily infliuenced by both the Malay and Chinese worlds, has seen the elongated cloud design take the form of an elaborate elongated orchid. This rendering is mirrored for example in the bas relief of the Franciscan emblem on the exterior of the Franciscan’s La Purisima Concepcion Church in Guiuan, Eastern Samar Province, the Philippines.

The principal church of the Franciscans in the Philippines in the Intramuro district of Manila. It was destroyed during the Second World War.

Bas relief of Franciscan emblem on the exterior of the Franciscan’s La Purisima Concepcion Church in Guiuan, Eastern Samar Province, Philippines.

St Francis perhaps are more frequently encountered. De Castro (2007) illustrates examples of vases and oil jars commissioned from kilns in China by Franciscan churches and monasteries in Portugal and Macao in the eighteenth century. Each of these is emblazoned with the crossed arms seal or emblem of the Order. Another similar vessel is illustrated in Beurdeley (1962, p. 140).

Occasionally items in silver are encountered, such as a small covered silver container attributed to sixteenth century Guatemala illustrated in Esteras Martin(1994, p. 66). Engraved simply if not crudely in a central roundel on the side of the container are the arms of the Order. A repoussed silver lectern attributed to seventeenth century Guatemala also incorporates the arms (see Esteras Martin, p. 104-5.)

The Spanish hoped to convert the inhabitants of the Philippines to Christianity, and missionaries from the mendicant orders were among the early settlers. The Augustinians arrived in 1565, the Franciscans in 1578, the Jesuits in 1581 and the Dominicans in 1587.

The Franciscans established themselves with the arrival of the Venerable Giambattista Lucarelli of Pesaro, who came to evangelise in the Philippines. He was one of the founders of the municipality of Agoo in the province of La Union. By the time the Spanish departed the Philippines in 1896 there were 275 Franciscans in the Philippines administering over a hundred parishes and mission areas.

The widespread conversion of Filipinos to Christianity during the Spanish colonial period meant that there was a relatively quick and large demand for ecclesiastic silver production. Each church and monastery needed liturgical vessels many of which were made from silver and silver gilt. Also, many wealthier converts ordered silver items for home worship. Fraser-Lu (1989) observes that some of the finest examples of silver were made by silversmiths in Ilocos and Batangas provinces. Mostly, the silversmiths were local Chinese. The Philippines has long had a significant ethnic Chinese minority population on account of its proximity to China – the local Chinese were known as the

sangleyes or literally ‘traders’ but the term came to be applied to Chinese artisans as well. In 1620, of a population of just over 41,000 in Manila, 16,000 were ethnic Chinese.

The Chinese silversmiths of the Manila area particularly were able to reproduce exactly articles made by Spanish craftsman. In 1590, the Dominican Bishop of Manila Domingo de Salazar commented of local Chinese artisans that they “are so skillful and able that, as soon as they see any object made by a Spanish craftsman, they reproduce it exactly…churches are beginning to be furnished with images which the

sangleyes have made, and which we greatly lacked before; and considering the ability demonstrated in rendering the images from Spain, it is my understanding that soon we will no longer need those made in Flanders”, (as quoted in Trusted, 2007, p. 201). This ability no doubt accounts for the exquisite craftsmanship shown in this pair of cruets.

It was common practice in Portugal’s colonies for ecclesiatical silver items to be commissioned from local artisans, cruets among them. The Museu Nacional de Soares de Reis in Porto, Portugal has a splendid pair or cruets of nephrite inlaid with gold and semi-precious stones from seventeenth or eighteenth century Mughal India and another pair in engraved silver and with applied Chinese characters. These are obviously of Chinese craftsmanship and most probably are from mainland China or Macau but also from Chinese silversmiths operating in Manila. Many cruets were produced by local smiths in South America too. Taullard (2004) shows several sets in silver and with each piece being surmounted by a ‘V’ and then an ‘A’ that are the product of local smiths in Peru during Spanish colonial times. Others were produced in colonial India. The Museum of Christian Art in Rachol, Goa, has a pair with a very prominent ‘V’ and ‘A’ attached to their lids. The pair is striking for their repousse work – they are completely covered in the fine floral scrolling that is synonymous with Kutch silverwork. They are illustrated in Museum of Christian Art (1993).

Overall, this pair of cruets is of the highest quality and represent a rare example of earlier Philippines’ ecciastical silverware.


UK art market.


Beurdeley, M., Porcelain of the East India Companies, Barrie and Rockliff, 1962; Esteras Martin, C., La Plateria en el Reino de Guatemala Siglos XVI-XIX, Fundacion Albergue Hermano Pedro, 1994; Museu Nacional de Soares de Reis, Guide to the Collection, 2001; Fraser-Lu, S., Silverware of South-East Asia, Oxford University Press, 1989; Museum of Christian Art, ‘Museum of Christian Art’, 1993; Morales, A.J., Filipinas – Puerto de Oriente: de Legazpi a Malaspina, Sociedad Estatal Para la Accion Cultural Exterior, 2003; Taullard, A., Plateria Sudamericana, Ediciones Espuela de Plata, 2004; Trusted, M., The Arts of Spain: Iberia and Latin America 1450-1700, V&A Publications, 2007; de Castro, N., Chinese Porcelain at the Time of the Empire: Portugal/Brasil, ACD Editores, 2007; Henkel, D. et al, Land of the Morning: The Philippines and its People, Asian Civilisations Museum, 2009.

Inventory no.: 1072


The Franciscan emblem on one of the cruets, showing the orchid-cloud motif.

Click on the video to get a better idea of the relative size of this item.