MEXICAN, ca. 1700
The Circumcision of Christ
Oil on wood panel inlaid with mother-of-pearl
14 x 12 ¾ inches (35.5 x 32.4 cm), with original frame 20 ½ x 19 inches (52 x 48.3 cm)
Inscribed, lower left, with an inventory number: 3836
Thonet Family, Vienna, by 1920s;
Thence by descent through the Thonet and Primavesi Families until
Private Collection, Salzburg, 2016; when acquired by:
Senger Bamberg Kunsthandel, 2017
The present work is a superb example of an enconchado painting – a unique fusion of fine and decorative art that flourished in Mexico in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The technique of enconchados involves the insertion of pieces of iridescent shell (concha) and mother-of-pearl into a panel support, followed by the painting of a figural composition with both opaque and translucent paints. The result, best seen under candlelight, produces a shimmering effect in which the natural materials are enhanced by the artifice of the painter to create a precious object of otherworldly attraction.
Only about two hundred enconchados are known today. Of these most were produced for private devotional use in a domestic context, while others, such as the celebrated series depicting the Conquest of Mexico (Museo de America, Madrid, and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires), must have been conceived for a more broadly decorative secular use. The present painting depicts the Circumcision, a subject often found in serial depictions of the life of Christ. However, no other enconchado of like size, style, and related subject is known, and it may be that our work was created as a single devotional object.
The material inspiration for enconchados is clearly Asian in origin, but may have had its aesthetic origins in European paintings on stone, in which the natural properties of the support were elaborated and complemented by the painter’s art. The international trade brought to Mexico by the Manila Galleons included a variety of luxury goods and materials—folding screens (biombos), boxes, and furniture-- with exotic mother-of pearl inlays. Whether the foreign artisans accompanied their objects to America, or whether the Mexican craftsmen imitated them is impossible to determine. But, however the origin, clearly the enconchado became a uniquely Mexican art form, one that drew on both European and Asian traditions, to represent the diversity of New World culture. The few named artists who are known to have specialized in producing enconchados all hailed from Mexico City.
Many of the compositional motifs of enconchado paintings directly derive from European print sources. However, no specific model for the Circumcision composition has yet been identified. Like most enconchado paintings, the present work bears no firm attribution, but may be dated around the year 1700. Its author has an unusually sophisticated pictorial style, reminiscent of Hispano-Flemish antecedents, one notably diverse from the more graphic treatments of heads found in other contemporary examples.
The frame on The Circumcision of Christ is the original frame, and, like the painting, was inspired by Asian sources. The repetitive motifs of birds and flowers, set within a spiraling composition, is directly indebted to Japanese namban art. The combination of frame and painting creates a unifying effect that is both sumptuous and spiritual.
The Circumcision of Christ has for the past century been in the collection of an Austrian family, descendants of the Viennese Thonet family, celebrated for their innovative bentwood furniture. An old inventory number, added at the lower left of the painting, has yet to be identified.