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Renaissance silverwork during the reigns of Charles V and Philip II

In the Renaissance, Spanish silverwork was at its height, thanks to its richness and beautiful pieces. During the 16 th century, the few existing silverware were almost exclusively religious. During the first years of Charles the Fifth reign, art was still linked to the Gothic style, although signs of new artistic manifestations were seen to emerge. The second decade as well as the next three decades of the 16 th century was marked by a transition from Gothic to Renaissance, with the introduction of new structural elements and with the birth of the first signs of the Reinassance ornamentation. With the advent of the print, illustrated books that came from Italy and Flanders were spread, resulting in the Spanish silversmiths copying the illustrations or scenes in their silverwork. The main ornamental motifs were grotesque and consisted of figureheads and hideous imaginative beings coming from secular themes combined with vegetal motifs. These decorative elements were used in religious pieces. In addition, the repertory was also inspired by the classical world: scallops, caryatides, medallions with busts and cupids. Another ornamental motif is the acanthus that replaced the Gothic -cabbage or thristle leave ; ribs and struts are merely ornamental. The decoration "a candelieri" was reflected in chalices, ciboriums and monstrances. It form ed a longitudinal composition of biltaral simetry.

During the last third of the century the favourite ornamental work has been the cartouche that imitates rolling scraps of leather. Figurative ornaments started disappearing and the style became more severe. The geometric and abstract trend is born, with motifs of diamonds, flat interweaving straps of ribbons on a stippled dotted background. This style also maintained an important position during the reigns of Philip III and Philip IV.

The existing religious works were the more dominant, whereas secular pieces had almost disappeared. However a few exceptions remained, such as jars with spout and trays. We know of these pieces thanks to the noble inventories of wills and auctions. We find crockeries that include trays, plates, salt-cellars, sugar bowls, pepper pots, cruets; cutleries, braziers.

In relation to materials, silver was the dominant metal used for these objects. In the first half of the century, the arrival of precious materials from Spanish America brought economic prosperity which had an effect on the thickness of the metal used. On the other hand, gold was hardly used as it was quite expensive. However, it could be found in silver gilds, achieving beautiful colour contrasts. During the reign of Philip II, the metals that arrived in Spain were used to pay for the cost of war. Economy was affected by the poor administration of the governors, who didn't protect the local industry. This situation resulted in a change of style, which by the end of the century became austere, imposed by the sumptuary laws of the monarch. The human figures disappeared along with the grotesque and the "candelieri".

In relation to the techniques used, the most characteristic of the Renaissance period was the turning. With the turning machine the objects obtained round shapes that substituted the Gothic poligonal sections. Previous periods techniques such as chiseling, repousse and engraving continued to be used. The chiseling involved etching fine lines into the gourd with a scalpel . It was used in the decoration of medium and bas relief and also as dust and finish of the cast pieces so as to polish the imperfections. The repousse consisted of hitting the metal in the inner part to make the sculpture stand out and the negative was modelled on the back of it. The melting consisted of pouring the melted metal in a hollow mould that had been previously cast by the lost wax process. In engraving, cuts were done on the surface of the metal with a chisel. Chiseling prevailed over the repousse, due to the influx of metal from Hispano-American mines.

A very characteristic Spanish piece is the jar with a spout, jarro de pico , which is made of a cylindric glass over a semiespheric base decorated with attached ribs and engraved decoration. The spout usually has a figurehead of a bearded old man as ornamentation. In relation to the handle, some have a 5 inverted shape. These jars were still created in the 12th century with changes made in the ornamentation and the use of buttons in the enamels. These pieces, however, disappeared with the arrival of the Borbon kings. (print 6).

6. Jar with spout . Diocesan Museum Tui.

A very important theme in the religious silverwork is the iconography because of the symbolic meaning it may have. These scenes demonstrate the Christian doctrine to the congregation. In the processional crosses, Christ appears in the intersection of the arms of the cross - cuadron-. In the first years of Christianity, the crosses didn't depict Christ. His picture appeared since the sixth century. At that time he was portrayed as a living Christ with a royal crown. In the 13 th century, however, he appears with a thorn crown.

In the Renaissance, Christ appears dead with a thorn crown. On the background, the sun and the moon are represented with human features, referring to the redemption of the universe. Sometimes, the city of Jerusalem is also portrayed . In the horizontal arm, at both sides of Christ, we find the Virgin and John the baptist, referring to the Stations of the Cross. The virgin is on the right and John the Baptist on the left. At the foot of the cross there is usually a representation of Adam coming out of his tomb, which, according to ancient legends, was buried in the same place of the Crucifixion [reference] and was raised from the dead when Christ died. It symbolises humanity, the victory over sin and death. Adam bought the sin and Christ liberated humanity. Other times they represent the figures of Lazarus or Mary Magdalene with the ointment vase on her knees, at the feet of Christ. On the top of the cross, there is the figure of a Pelican hurting his chest with its beak, in order to feed its brood. It symbolises Christ, who shed his blood to redeem humanity. It is also the symbol of paternal love and charity. In the Low Renaissance, God in a blessing position substituted the Pelican. On the back of the crosses, and more specifically on the central intersection of the arms of the cross, feature the Saviour, the Virgin Mary and the Saints of the parish. In the quadrifolia, the Tetramorfos, the symbolic representation of the four evangelists: the eagle represents John the baptist, the lion represents Saint Mark; the bull represents Saint Luke and the winged man represents Saint Matthew. On other occasions there are scenes from the Passion, from the Old or New Testament.

In the clumps or knots, inside the vaulted niches, there are usually representations of the apostoles, the prophets or the Doctors of the Church.

The iconographic language of the chalices consists of the symbols of Passion: the Calvary, the stair, the dice, the nails, the lance, the hammer and the pliers laid out in the cup and base. The apple doesn't have much relief as it is difficult to hold.

In relation to the structure of the pieces, we will start with the chalices. They are the most predominant objects of the Holly crockery as they are daily used in Eucharisty. At the beginning of the 16 th century, the base tends to have a circular shape with six spoon like lobes, that have a troncoconical shape. At the beginning of the 17 th century, the stump just like the base, has more of a circular shape with six spoon-like lobes, losing its starshape and becoming troncoconical. (print 7).

7- Chalice of Saint Peter , Puebla de Brollon. Lugo.

Later on, the circular base gives way to a plinth of two convex parts and a troncoconical neck. Other models are not circular but cylindrical. There is an evolution of the handle, it changes from a poligonal shape to a cylindrical and becomes overelaborated . The knot has sometimes the shape of a sphere and sometimes of a vase. The cups become more open and are bell shaped, cylindric or semioval and develop mouldings to separate the subcup [reference].

The origin of the word ciborium derives from its shape and from the vessel containing the consecrated Hosts. In the Council of Trento, communion was stimulated and bigger cups were made to contain more Hosts. They are similar to chalices on its base and handle and have the same ornamental language. The cases have cylindrical shapes and are topped by a cross. (print 8).

8. Ciborium. Private colection. Madrid.

The processional cross is a representative piece of the religious community, which is present at the festivities and the important moments of the congregation's parish life. In relation to their structural language there are various types: straight arms with rhomboidal enlargements, with four lobes or oval, with fleur de lys designs, conopial, circular, clover shaped and with over elaborate arms. In struts , they have different shapes: cylindrical separated in four to six sides by buttresses and with caps on the end of its sides; architectural hexagonal type, with two or three parts, with vaulted niches that us ua lly have images (print 9).

9. Processional Cross. San Martin, Panton. Lugo.

In the 16 th century, the pieces are of excellent quality, silversmiths were highly qualified artisans and attracted respect from their community. To understand their prestige , we just have to take into account that they earned more money with their creations than the materials used were worth .


Hall, J., Diccionario de temas y simbolos artisticos , Madrid, 1987, pags. 96-102.

Saez Gonzalez, M., La plateria en Terra de Lemos , Lugo, 2003, pag. 23.

Cruz Valdovinos, J. M., Ciclo de Conferencias: El Madrid de Carlos III , "La Real Escuela de Plateria de don Antonio Martinez, Madrid, 1988.

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