Arts of Spain & Portugal: Decorative Arts


Treasures abound in the thousands of objects that comprise the Hispanic Society’s collection of decorative arts. The magnificent collection of Spanish ceramics is the largest in the United States, and one of the finest and most comprehensive outside of Spain, encompassing lusterware, faience or tin-glazed earthenware, burnished earthenware, and porcelain. Exceptional examples of the famous Islamic-influenced lusterware produced at Manises (Valencia) from the 14th through 18th centuries are among the finest to be found anywhere. All of the major decorative styles and motifs from Islamic to Gothic can be found on the dozens of albarelos (pharmacy or drug jars), chargers, bowls, deep basins, and vases of the “golden” pottery. At the height of its popularity in the 14th and 15th centuries, Spanish lusterware with its lustrous metallic glazes was the most prized of all European ceramics, as evidenced by the numerous pieces emblazoned with the coats-of arms of Italian and Spanish noble families. The collection of lusterware also includes an array of choice pieces from Muel and Catalonia dating from the 15th through 18th centuries.

Late Medieval ceramics from other centers of productions include plates and architectural finials (ca. 1500) from Seville in the cuerda seca technique, decorated with the characteristic green, blue, ochre, and white glazes; as well as a large 15th-century jar from Teruel (Aragon) decorated with heraldic devices and foliate designs in typical green, black, and white glazes. Seville also was a major early center for the production of architectural tiles during the late Medieval period and the Renaissance. Dozens of representative examples of varied designs include 15th-century cuerda seca figural and Islamic-influenced interlacery tiles in matte glazes, along with 16th-century cuenca tiles in polychrome and luster glazes.


Polychrome painted flat tiles produced at Seville in the 16th and 17th centuries demonstrate an Italian technique introduced in the early 16th century by Francisco Nicoluso Pisano. Of special note is a panel with the image of St. Dominic (ca. 1622) from the workshop of Fernando de Valladares. The famous tin-glazed earthenware from Talavera de la Reina and Puente del Arzobispo (Toledo) is another focal point of the collection. Dozens of plates, pharmacy jars, vases, and bowls in blue-and-white and polychrome glazes display virtually all of the decorative styles produced from the 16th through 18th centuries. Highlights include several large pharmacy jars in both strapwork and sponged decorations produced in the late 16th century for the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial; two early 17th-century plates of the “three color series,” decorated in blue, orange, and manganese, one with a figure of a Flemish soldier, and another with a scene of Jonah and the whale; an early 17th-century footed plate decorated with a fine lacework design; and a large polychrome bowl with an uncommon scene of the roundup of bulls for a bullfight that was a gift from Joaquín Sorolla. The collection also includes several fine examples of 17th-century Portuguese blue-and-white faience, including a barber’s basin for bloodletting, a refined Chinese-inspired bottle vase, and a rare aquamanile in the form of a Portuguese female dragon, or coca.

The Hispanic Society holds an important collection of blue-and-white and polychrome faience produced at the Royal Ceramics Factory of Alcora (Castellón) which gained fame in the 18th-century for its meticulously painted and decorated wares. Over 100 superb specimens of Alcora present a diversity of forms and decorative styles that include plaques, sculptures, chargers, trays, bowls, pitchers, and mancerinas (trembleuses) for drinking chocolate. Exceptional pieces include a large First Period charger (ca. 1733-1749) with the scene Porus in Battle from a print after the painting by Charles Le Brun; a First Period plaque (ca. 1730-1749) with the scene of The Temptation of Saint Anthony after the print by Jacques Callot; a mancerina (ca. 1735-1760) with decoration from the “natural flowers” series; a large tray (ca. 1735-1760) with scenes of China from the Chinese series; a Second Period presentation plate (ca. 1749-1770) with Parisian scenes of Versailles and the Cathedral of Notre Dame; and a Third Period container for tobacco (ca. 1780-1825) in the form of a dolphin.


In the 18th century Charles III established the royal porcelain factories of Capodimonte (Naples) and Buen Retiro (Madrid). From the factory of Capodimonte are three finely painted shell-form snuff boxes in soft paste porcelain. Fine examples from the Buen Retiro factory include a set of plates with decoration inspired by Chinese export porcelain, and an impressive large lidded vase and pair of candelabra with ormolu mounts with delicate Neoclassical decoration, the latter being the only known examples.

Representative of more popular Iberian ceramics are Catalan tiles from the 18th and 19th centuries that illustrate the typical arts, crafts, and trades of their era. The collection also includes a humorous interpretation of the same tradition by the famous Barcelona artist Ramón Casas that he entitled The Advances of the 19th Century (1903), offered as a collection of 25 tiles to the subscribers of his art journal Pel & Ploma. The collection holds as well unusual examples of 19th-century and early 20th-century utilitarian wares from various regions, most collected by the early curators of the Hispanic Society on their travels through the small villages of Spain. Among the decorative ceramics from the early 20th century, also collected by the early curators, are a number of fine examples of the lustered art pottery produced at the workshop of Daniel Zuloaga Boneta in the Church of San Juan de los Caballeros in Segovia.

The Hispanic Society also possesses a select collection of early enameled Barcelona glass of the 16th century, as well as 16th- and 17th-century Mudejar-style blown green glass with applied decoration from Granada and Almería. Popular 18th-century Barcelona glass of elaborate forms, such as porrones, drinking vessels for wine, is typified by one example in the collection that has interior latticino decoration and applied ornaments. More refined 18th-century glassware from the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja de San Ildefonso is represented a number of typical engraved vessels, as well as a rare desk set in cobalt glass with white latticino decoration.

Cristóbal Becerril

Numerous exceptional pieces of religious and secular gold and silverwork from the 14th through 18th centuries are found in the collection. Among the finest early works are a silver gilt reliquary with champlevé and translucent enamels (ca. 1375-1425) from Barcelona; and a silver gilt, cast, repoussé, and chased chalice (ca. 1500-1515), possibly from Segovia. A star of the collection is a gilt silver custodia (1585), or processional monstrance for Eucharistic wafers, on a lapis lazuli base, made for the parishes of the town of Alarcón by the Cuencan silversmith Cristóbal Becerril. This stunning example of the Spanish Renaissance is the only Spanish processional custodia in North America.

Extraordinary works of the jeweler’s art were created by goldsmiths in Golden Age Spain thanks to the riches of their American colonies: silver from Mexico and Bolivia, gold and emeralds from Colombia, and coral and pearls from Central and South America. Notable examples include a pendant in the form of a centaur (ca. 1575-1600), embellished with enamel, white sapphire, rubies, and pearls; an eagle pendant (ca. 1600-1625), with enamel, emerald, rubies, and pearls; and a necklace ensemble composed of 16 medallions, a cartouche with the image of Saint Ferdinand, and a crucifix pendant (ca. 1500-1700), embellished with enamel, pearls, rubies, garnets, emeralds, engraved sapphire, and paint. Religious motifs are common in Spanish jewelry of the Golden Age as exhibited by other fine pendants in the collection that bear images of the Virgin Mary and saints modeled in gold, enameled, or carved in semiprecious stones, such as coral. Also found in the collection are elegant reliquary pendants that contain small relics (bone fragments) of saints encased in rock crystal.


The Hispanic Society is famous for its extensive collection of Spanish ironwork produced by the skilled artisans of the 15th and 16th centuries. Numerous exceptional examples have intricate backplates with Gothic or Mudejar motifs combined with three-dimensional sculptural knockers in the form of dragons, lizards, bats, lobster claws, birds, dogs, and humans. Chest locks bear equally extravagant forms, such as the engraved lockplate and hasp (ca. 1600) in the collection that is ornamented with a three-dimensional salamander with an articulated tongue. Also held are delicate ornamental iron reja bands with ornamental relief that adorned altar or window screens, some retaining their original polychrome, gold, and silver surface decoration. A remarkably well-preserved figural example of this refined ironwork with painted surface decoration is a lamp support in the form of a mermaid (ca. 1500) from Tordesillas.


Furniture with ornamental ironwork hardware is amply represented in the collection with numerous fine examples of the most distinctive of Spanish forms, vargueños (drop-front secretaries). One early and exceptional Aragonese vargueño (ca. 1575-1600) is composed of walnut and boxwood with inlaid ivory; the exterior decorated with Mudejar interlacery designs, and the interior with architectural motifs. Characteristic of 16th-century Mudejar-style furniture include a cabinet and a chest with intricate geometric designs in inlaid ivory.

The Hispanic Society holds one of the most important collections of Spanish textiles in North America. In addition to the Hispano-Islamic textiles, the collection contains exceptional examples of late Medieval, Renaissance, and Golden Age silk embroideries and brocades; wool carpets, 18th-century Valencian brocaded silk damasks, and an extensive collection of laces. In the 15th and 16th centuries Valencia produced some of the finest silk velvets and brocades to be found anywhere in Europe. The collection of religious vestments, primarily chasubles and copes, made of cut silk velvet brocade enhanced with palmette and pomegranate designs in gold-wrapped threads, are true works of art. Religious vestments made with less luxurious textiles frequently are embellished with exquisite embroidered panels of colored silk and metallic thread. The collection is unusually rich in early carpets, with several fine examples of 16th-century wool carpets from Alcaraz (Albacete) with Renaissance-inspired wreath designs made in the Spanish knot, or single-warp knot technique. Dozens of examples of intricate network, drawn-work, and bobbin laces from the 16th-18th centuries complete the collection.