Table Cabinet

Exotic wood, tortoiseshell, ivory; silver mountings

Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
Late 16th century
24.2 x 47.6 x 32.6 cm

Table cabinet made of exotic wood veneered with tortoiseshell plaques, set with pierced ivory panels, and fitted with silver mountings. Rectangular table cabinet, resting on top of ball-shaped feet, with pierced, openwork and finely carved ivory panels set on a tortoiseshell ground pinned to the gilded wooden structure, framed with plain, etched-like ivory mouldings with a simple wavy pattern.

The silver mountings consist of escutcheons decorated in pierced openwork, corner fittings finely chased with floral motifs, cast handles with chased and filed decoration, and decorative star-like nails. It has two tiers of drawers. The bottom tier has three drawers while the top tier has only one, with the front of the top drawer simulating three, keeping the overall symmetry of the front of the cabinet with its six pierced openwork silver escutcheons. Each front of the drawers is decorated with the same scheme of intricate floral scrolls set with two-fold symmetry. The sides share the same carpet-like decorative scheme, with a central field featuring a large floral “S”- shaped scroll with flowers, buds and leaves, and a large border with a continuous undulating floral frieze; the narrow border the edges have an etched-like wavy pattern similar to the front, which is also present on the top. The top is lavishly decorated with a similar carpet-like scheme, with the central field featuring a Pelican vulning herself also known as Pelican in her piety (the Pie pellicane). In fact, depicted on the inside the roundel at the centre of the field, there is a mother pelican cutting into her own flesh to feed her young with her blood. This is symbolic of Jesus Christ shedding his precious blood for the redemption of Humanity, and also a symbol the Church distributing the graces of Christ’s redemption in the mass and sacraments. It is a symbol of Christian piety and a recurrent motif in so-called Indo-Portuguese art, used not only in a religious context but also in art works commissioned by wealthy officials, noblemen and merchants in Portuguese Asia. The reverse side, in contrast, features on the field, on the centre of an arch-like floral scroll, a scene of hunting animals.

Portable table cabinets of this type were luxury containers for documents or smaller precious objects. They were simple in construction and their impact depended on the richness of their decoration. Such cabinets were produced in Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) off the western coast of India on commission from Portuguese high officials and traders for the European market by the mid sixteenth century. While the shape and function are clearly European, the subject and style of the elaborate ivory carved decoration are characteristic of Ceylonese luxury arts. Pieces with a similar construction and decorative repertoire - with pierced, openwork ivory plaques set on teak, gilded copper or brass and, more rarely with tortoiseshell on a gilded background - are to be found in public and private collections in very small numbers (see Jordan Gschwend & Beltz, 2010, p. 77, cat. no. 23, p. 120, cat. no. 51, and p. 121, cat. no. 52). Only one other similar table cabinet with tortoiseshell back- ground is known to exist although unlike the present one its decoration is purely floral.

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