Description & Technical information

This important casket belongs to a restricted group of carved ivory furniture, fall-front writing boxes and other caskets made in 16th century Ceylon for the highest Portuguese hierarchy, few of which remain in private hands.
Rectangular in shape and resting on a stepped projecting base, the casket is assembled by four dovetail joined ivory plaques, reinforced by brass pins and fitted with a flat cover and base plate consisting of two ivory half lap splice joined sections.
All the visible outer surfaces are profusely carved in low-relief with scrollwork and mythological beasts, most notably lions or siṁha, heraldic symbol of Ceylon’s Royal House. On the front elevation, facing each other on either side of the silver lock plate, a makarā-headed siṁha confronts the siṁha on the right. And while the lateral elevations depict makarā-headed horned deer, the back panel features a gajasiṁha - elephant-headed lion - and two distinct types of makarā-headed siṁha. The cover, fitted with a silver loop handle of makarā head terminals, is decorated with two wide scroll bands with lotus flowers, encircling eight individually headed siṁha.
The sophisticated silver lock mechanism, revealing the exceptional mastery reached by 16th century Ceylonese silverwork, consists of an architectural latch terminal shaped as a makarā - aquatic monster that protected the casket valuable contents - and a square-shaped escutcheon that reflects types commonly seen in Renaissance Europe.
Produced in Ceylon’s Royal workshops during the 2nd-half of the 16th century the present casket belongs to a very small group of analogous objects, of which two, originally gifts by the 1542 Ceylonese Embassy to Lisbon, are now in Munich. Both of these caskets stand out for their unparalleled workmanship, size and high-relief figural decoration. Undoubtedly made by master ivory carvers at the Imperial Kōṭṭe workshops, their production could have been directly overseen by King Bhuvanekabāhu VII (r. 1521-1551) and his Brahmin chaplain, Śrī Rāmarakṣa Pandiṭa, who served as Kōṭṭe’s ambassador to Lisbon.
Mounted in gold and set with rubies and sapphires, these objects were produced by highly skilled and accomplished gem cutters, goldsmiths and ebony and ivory carvers or cabinet makers, devoted to producing such masterpieces. Following from Kōṭṭe’s destruction in 1565 and the craftsmen resettlement in Portuguese-ruled Colombo, the highly refined carving technique achieved in earlier caskets, was probably lost. Yet, it becomes clear that, as in Europe, talented artists moved from one court to another, in search of superior artistic and cultural patronage.
The present casket, modelled after a late medieval European prototype, was produced in a period of Ceylon's history marked by wars and internal conflict, as well as by the rise and fall of rulers within the various kingdoms, in which the precedence of South Indian, Tamil artistic traditions over local Buddhist aesthetics, and vice-versa, was never static.
Identical low-relief carving and larger-scale faunal and floral motifs of Tamil origin are also identifiable in a group of extant objects, of which a fine example, a casket of identical decorative repertoire probably produced in Kandy in the Ceylonese central highlands, belongs to the Távora Sequeira Pinto collection at Oporto. The fact that Rājasiṁha I (r. 1581-1593), King of Sītāvaka and of Kandy until 1592, at the time the most powerful ruler in the island, gave preference to South Indians and even converted to Hinduism, makes it easier to understand this artistic shift. The precise production centre for these works has been disputed in recent historiography, somehow forcing upon them the idea that they might have been produced next to or within European-ruled centres such as Colombo or Galle. While this is certainly true for 17th century furniture pieces produced for exporting, it seems unlikely for earlier diplomatic gifts given the island’s political and artistic context.
Other similar pieces from within this restricted group, with strong South Indian characteristics and featuring analogous low-relief carved decoration combined with engraved foliage friezes, identical shape and flat tops, are also known, namely one at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv. 205-1879), and another, originally in King Fernando II’s of Portugal (1816-1885) collection and recently acquired by the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore. Alongside the Oporto casket, a recently published prismatic cover casket of this same group is also recorded in a Lisbon private collection.
Until recently, the casket herewith described belonged to the Counts of Mesquitela family. In 1886, by a royal decree signed by King Luís I (r.1861-1889), the 2nd Count of Mesquitela, João Afonso da Costa de Sousa de Macedo (1815-1890) was given the title of 1st Duke of Albuquerque, on the grounds that the family were direct descendants of Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515), the 2nd viceroy of Portuguese India and a major figure of the Portuguese overseas expansion, responsible for establishing Portugal as a major potency in South and Southeast Asia.

Date:  2nd half of the 16th century
Origin:  Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), probably Kandy
Medium: Brass, silver, carved ivory
Dimensions: 8 x 19 x 11 cm (3¹/₈ x 7¹/₂ x 4³/₈ inches)
Provenance: Count of Mesquitela, Duke d'Albuquerque collection

Categories: Oriental and Asian Art