When the Spaniards and Portuguese set out to explore and conquer the New World for the Crown, Church and themselves, their meager personal possessions included devotional items to inspire and comfort them in their perilous journeys: Books of Hours, rosaries, crosses, medals, triptychs, and small lockets containing religious imagery that were known as relicarios. In the Americas and the Philippines during the colonial era these lockets evolved into a unique genre of devotional jewelry and artistic expression.
The relicarios of Latin America and the Philippines were created in a variety of styles, techniques and materials. In sixteenth century New Spain, Mexican apprentices to Jeronymite fathers carved tiny Flemish-style religious tableaux in boxwood that were then set against a backdrop of iridescent blue feathers and encased behind crystal in lantern style gold or silver pendants, some of which were smaller than a cubic inch. Artisans carved religious imagery for relicarios in such mediums as ivory, bone, native alabaster, wax and tagua nut. When such materials were not available, a home-made "pasta" of plaster, flour, potatoes and other ingredients might be used to fashion high and low reliefs. Miniatures of the saints for use as relicarios were painted on copper, vellum, ivory, tin, card, glass and other materials and set inside gold, brass or silver frames.
In present-day Latin America, relicarios have been largely relegated to museum shelves or the dusty corners of grandmothers' jewelry boxes. For students of the past, however, these devotional jewels recall the sabor of a bygone era, when piety was public and artists were anonymous—the very essence of Latin America's rich artistic heritage.
* Courtesy of Martha Egan - Pachamama. Santa Fe, NM
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