This rare pair of unusually large oval portrait plaques are in high-grade silver and have been repoussed, chased and engraved with images in profile of Jesus and Mary. The images are splendid and powerful. The depiction of Jesus is particularly striking, especially the luxuriant curls of the hair.
At first look, the plaques appear to be European, but closer examination shows that they are by a Chinese hand. Mary’s collar is decorated with two borders of Chinese key-fret motifs. The collar about Jesus’ neck is decorated with Chinese chrysanthemum blooms, as is a lower border. The lapels on his robe also are chased with typically Chinese plum leaves. The borders of May’s robes are similarly chased with Chinese vegetal motifs.
There are other clues too. The curls of Jesus’ hair and beard, particularly on the cheek, are portrayed almost as stylised clouds in the manner of Chinese artists.
The pair have been produced wither in China, perhaps at the behest of Jesuit missionaries from Spain or Portugal, or perhaps Dutch traders. Or they are the product of Chinese silversmiths in Southeast Asia. The most likely candidate are Chinese silversmiths operating in nearby Manila. It is likely that the Chinese artisans worked directly from European bronze medals that they were able to copy.
The images are copies on silver of medals that were struck in bronze based on the designs of a Pierre Goret, who was active in the southern Netherlands in the mid-seventeenth century. Goret is believed to have been influenced by the work of the sixteenth century Italian medalist Antonio Abondio. This will explain why the figures are depicted in Roman toga-like robes which was the tendency of Italian artists at the time. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has in its collection an almost identical medal of Christ believed to be by Goret.
The form of the plaques is that of 17th century European portrait plaques which were made to hang on the wall, either unmounted or within a small frame. (See for example the portrait plaque of the Danish King Frederik the Third, dated 1663, and illustrated in Trnek & Haag (2001, p. 162).) The plaques were produced in enamels, copper and lead. The form also is analogous to the gilded and lacquered copper portrait plaques produced in Japan for the European market in the 18th century although these tended to be much smaller, perhaps ten centimetres in height only (see Jackson & Jaffer, 2004, p. 248, for an example.)
The silver used to make these plaques is very pure. The plaques have a splendid patina, and the reverse of each is very dark from centuries of tarnish. The pair are in excellent condition. There are no losses, no repairs and no splits. (The edges were delicately folded over to the back, to reinforce the edges.) There are very old, minor dents which could easily be removed but we don’t feel that is necessary.
The pair are rare and museum-worthy examples of cross-cultural art showing early European influence in Asia.
Dupre, Sylvestre, pers. com., October 2018.
Jackson, A. & A. Jaffer, Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800, V&A Publications, 2004.
Gundestrap, B., The Royal Danish Kunstkammer 1737, Volume 1, Nationalmuseet, 1991.
Trnek, H., & S. Haag (eds.), Exotica: Portugals Entdeckungen im Spiegel furstlicher Kunst – und Wunderkammern der Renaissance, Kunsthistorischen Museums Wien, 2001.