Small chest

The Philippines
17th century
Exotic woods, and bone inlay; iron fittings
41 x 98.3 x 47 cm

This small rectangular chest – the front mimicking a contemporary fall-front writing box – and fitted with a flat lid, is made from exotic wood and veneered in rich reddish brown tindalo wood. Its beautiful undulating grain – from the Afzelia rhomboidea, a species from the Fabaceae family found in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, make it one of the finest Philippine woods used for cabinet making. It is here combined with dark  kamagong wood – from the Diospyros discolor, from the genus Diospyrus of ebony and persimmon trees, native to the Philippines – which is used for the flat inlay borders. Its exterior decoration is restrained, taking full advantage of the colour contrast between the finely grained hardwoods used. The carpet-like composition of the exterior faces consists of a large central panel of tindalo with a very narrow inner border made from bone, decorated with European-derived Mannerist-style motifs in the corners made in bone inlay over the reddish brown tindalo. The iron fittings include a soberly chased escutcheon-like flat lock plate decorated in openwork, heavy wrought side handles, a loop puller on the lid, Chinese-style openwork corner braces, and several purely decorative hinges. The present rectangular travelling chest, used for storing precious belongings, while mimicking a writing box, is modelled after a European prototype; a portable object known in Germany as a schreibtisch or "writing desk”. Small, precious writing cabinets, boxes and chests made in Asia from exotic and expensive materials were much admired and avidly sought after in Europe due not only to their appealing design but also to their technical perfection. While similarly decorated and shaped travelling chests are unknown to us, a few contemporary fall-front writing boxes made in the Philippines survive, and mention should be made of two in the Fernando and Catherine Zobel de Ayala Collection (Ayala Museum, in Makati City, the Philippines). Both were made using the same traditional woods and have similar bone inlays. One other extraordinary example, which features Aztec iconography (Mexico), has recently been published. Like the newly studied writing box, the present chest stands as a powerful testimony to the trans-cultural nature of the Manila Galleons, known in Filipino as Kalakalang Galyon ng Maynila at Acapulco, the Spanish trading ships which linked the Philippines with Mexico across the Pacific Ocean, along a trade route which was inaugurated in 1565.

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