In Focus

Biombo with Otto van Veen Emblems

A biombo is a moveable folding screen comprising multiple painted panels. Developed in colonial Mexico, this innovative piece of furniture reflects the popularity of Japanese byobu, _folding screens with paper or wooden panels. (For example, see _The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup [1989.78.A-B.McD].) Asian objects and luxury goods made their way to colonial Mexico and Spain through the Manila Galleon Trade, a trade route established between the Philippine Islands and Acapulco during the 16th century. Upon arrival in Acapulco, on Mexico's Pacific coast, goods such as byobu traveled overland to the capital, and then to the coastal port of Veracruz, to be shipped to Spain. Due to this strategic position at the center of the Spanish Empire's global trade networks, colonial Mexico was a site of abundant cultural exchange. The popularity of Japanese byobu influenced the development of biombos, which reinterpreted the screen format in a Spanish baroque style.

Biombos were elaborately decorated, and their panels often included allegorical content that supported patrons' self-identities as educated elites and societal models for virtue and propriety. The screens could be used in formal reception halls to frame the sitting area where women received guests, or in bedrooms to create privacy. The content of the painted decoration varied widely, ranging from classical mythology to European genre scenes, moral lessons, and distinctly Mexican subjects such as the meeting of Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma, or panoramic views of Mexico City. Another popular theme for biombos were adaptations of emblem books, a particular literary genre popular in the 16th and 17th centuries which paired short mottoes with symbolic illustrations and a poem or short text. This same form is repeated in the Dallas Museum of Art's biombo: each panel bears a motto and image, with a short verse below, adapted from the Flemish writer Otto van Veen.

During the 17th century, van Veen published several emblem books, the most well known of which is Quinti Horatti Flacci Emblemata, published in 1607. Though the emblems found on the biombo can be traced to the 1607 text, the lines of poetry inscribed beneath each emblem originate instead from the 1699 edition of Theatro Moral de la Vida Humana published in Brussels by Francisco Foppens. Each emblem speaks to different aspects of a virtuous, honorable, and spiritual life, reflecting the ideals of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

On the biombo, each panel has an allegorical image at the center painted in the Neoclassical style of European history paintings, and set within a quatrefoil of ornate baroque scrollwork, flowers, and birds. The top of the golden frame contains the associated motto, while the accompanying poem is set in an oval below. The dominant red and gold tones of the panels, as well as the inclusion of Asian figures contribute to the screen's sense of foreign exoticism. The ornate scrollwork is surmounted by a golden crown, suggestive of the House of Bourbon. Meanwhile, the eagle perched upon the crown recalls the Mexica (Aztec) legend of Mexico City's origins—it was foretold that an eagle holding a snake and perched upon a cactus would indicate to the nomadic Mexica the location of their new home, and thus they settled in Mexico City, or as it was previously known, Tenochtitlán. The colonial Spanish adoption of this tale through the imagery of the eagle indicates that Spanish settlers saw themselves as rightful heirs to the prosperous Mexica and their capital city. Further, the baskets full of fruit, blooming flowers, and birds found throughout each panel attest to New Spain's fertility and abundance. These elements indicate a criollo pride in Mexico's landscape and history, as well as the elite desire to foster Spanish sensibilities in the "New World." [1]

[1] The term criollo refers to people born in New Spain who were of European descent. Criollos were sometimes seen as nouveau riche in the eyes of Europe's nobility, since their wealth came from mining and agriculture in New Spain. The Spanish crown barred criollos from holding certain prestigious positions in government and the church, reserving such positions for peninsulares, or those born in Spain.

Chloë Courtney, Digital Collections Content Coordinator

Drawn from

  • Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521-1821 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 211-217.

  • Candace Carlisle Vilas, "Biombo with Otto Van Veen Emblems," DMA Unpublished material, 2016.

Web Resources