This is a nineteenth-century alms plate from Colonial Mexico in the Lowe Art Museum. Luxury silver objects were prime example of art for the Church, as they served as symbols of Christian opulence and power which was meant to inspire awe in native people and encourage their conversion to Christianity. The alms plate was a container passed around the pews to collect donations for the church and the poor during Christian masses. The material it is made from, silver, was once highly sought after and valuable in Spain, but upon the discovery of silver in the New World, silver became used even more abundantly in a wide variety of objects. That being said, the shine and patterns of the plate give it an ornate ceremonial appearance, in accordance with the other ornate objects used in Christian masses.
This alms plate features three concentric circles which display predominantly floral patterns. The center of the circle rises up in a half dome shape, and appears to have textured silver without engravings. The middle ring is distinguished by how it is concave nature with steep, sudden slopes surrounding it, giving the plate some depth. The floral pattern of the second ring creates the impression of a six pointed flower or star, radiating out from the center of the plate. The rim rises steeply from the basin of the plate, and features a leafy pattern. These patterns are intricate, shallow engravings that add to the ornate nature of the alms plate. A sense of rotation and movement is created by having the points of the central floral pattern face outwards and the points of the leaves on the rims pointing inward. The edge of the rim is defined by a thin border of three concentric circles. The architecture of the plate works to make the centermost flower seem almost three dimensional, as its center pops protrudes from the surface while the petals and leaves are deeply set. Though the silver still retains some of its shine, it displays some tarnish due to time and handling.
The alms plates from Spanish colonial churches represent the combination of luxury and piety. The silver for the plates became more available after obtaining the Spanish colonies, leading to many wealthy Spaniards commissioning ornate silver pieces. These alms plates were commissioned and then donated to churches as collection plates by wealthy patrons who wanted to donate some of their wealth for the good of the Church. The shape of the plate corresponds to its function, as it was deep enough to hold a considerable amount of donated coins. Examples of gardoons, an ornamental band, can be seen on the rim of the second, floral alms plate.
Both of these plates are ornamented in the Mudéjar style, an artistic style brought from Spain to the Americas. The Mudéjar consisted of patterns influenced by Islamic art, that included arabesques, which where floral and vegetable patterns, and geometric patterns and vaulting. The Mudéjar style refers to Spanish architecture and art that is strongly influenced by Muslim taste and influences, and the appropriation of these styles by the Spaniards reflects the cultural cooperation and religious tolerance in Spain. The second alms plate seems to have less Islamic influence and be in a more Christian style, as it features scallop shells, the symbol of Saint James who was the patron saint of Spain. The luxurious nature of the silver plate is also representative of the Spanish desire to emulate the opulentence of ornate Moorish finery.
As seen in the ornate style of many Christian altars and churches, the use of fine, reflective materials helped to impress on new converts the power of the Christian church and God. Just as many churches emphasized the presence of light as symbol of divinity and God’s grace, the use of reflective metals such as silver would have emphasized the light within the church. The use of such visible, grand elements within the church, rather than showing humility, would have helped to influence native individuals to convert. The use of an indigenous material, silver, with Old World religion reflects the blending of cultures that occurred when Spanish conquistadors attempted to assimilate native populations into Spanish religious doctrine.
- “The Lowe, Art Lab. Conquest and Coexistence: The Cultural Synthesis of Spanish Colonial Art.”, 2015, University of Miami Lowe Art Museum.
- Zihrena Systems for Another Day in Paradise. “History.” History – Silver in Mexico. Accessed April 17, 2018. http://www.adip.info/2004_2005/dec/1_history.php.
- Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Mudejar Architecture of Aragon.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed April 17, 2018. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/378.