16-17th century

Museu de São Roque

Museu de São Roque
Lisboa, Portugal

This casket, showing polylobed cartouches of Safavid influence (of Old Persian) with vegetal elements, is wholly decorated with inlays of mother of pearl (raden) over black resin, unusually decorated with gold, thus creating a suggestive polychromy.
This reliquary-casket, originating from the altar of the Martyr Saints of the Church of São Roque in Lisbon, is distinguished, not only for its formal beauty, but also for its origins, as it is an old donation to the Professed House of the Society of Jesus. Although it is found specifically referenced in the inventory of relics of this Jesuit church, from 1695, already in 1588, the existence of a "mother of pearl safe" on the very same altar is referenced which would have most probably been this example.
The survival of a considerable number of small namban caskets in Portugal was essentially owing to their reutilisation for the Christian cult as a reliquary or urn for the Sacred Host. Along the same artistic lines, there are other examples with small variations at the level of decoration, such as the representation of scenes of Japanese tales or of exotic animals and plants. In Portugal there are various models with this format which were reproduced in the East, differing above all in the shape of the lid, which, in the case of Japan was curved, with concave and convex flutes. However, the originality of this example essentially resides in its dimensions, which, on the other hand, carne to justify its use as an object of devotion within the counter-reformed Catholic Church.
We find in Portuguese museums and European private collections various models of this type, used as much in the lay world as the religious, having been used in great quantity in other areas of the Indies as objects of exchange or offer.


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