Sometimes called the “Age of Exploration,” the centuries following Columbus’s voyage to the New World in 1492 were marked by an unprecedented degree of contact and interchange between formerly unconnected cultures. Often, of course, this “discovery of difference” had significant political, cultural, religious, and human consequences. In the Americas, the Spanish conquest led to the fall of the Aztec and Inca empires, the destruction of large parts of these (and other) indigenous cultures, forced Christianization, the exploitation of the native workforce, massive declines in population, and the imposition of Spanish hegemony. Elsewhere, notably in Asia, contact was not always combined with conquest. In China, India, and Japan European traders and Christian (often Jesuit) missionaries interacted with the existing cultures, but their impact was much more limited. While some converted to Christianity and others were intrigued by and adopted European technologies, fashions, and artistic practices, the most profound consequences of this cultural contact were, perhaps, experienced in Europe. There the importation of Asian luxury goods such as porcelain, lacquer, and cloth had a significant cultural impact, one which was also felt in the Americas.[1]

As the example of Asian luxury goods suggests, expanded cultural contact after 1492 had profound implications for visual and material culture in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. It led to an unprecedented level of intercultural hybridity in which elements from one culture were combined with elements from another in relationships of juxtaposition, convergence, and syncretism. Inevitably, however, these hybrid combinations were shaped by power relationships, political strategies, mutual misunderstandings, and preexisting cultural and ideological constructs. Such contact also led to a curiosity about the foreign “other” that found expression in texts and images and spurred the creation of new types of art and new fields of scientific investigation.[2] Finally, it influenced and reshaped values, habits, and cultural practices, sometimes forcibly and obviously, sometimes in subtle ways that scholars have only recently begun to study and understand.[3]

Via the close study of objects from visual and material culture this exhibition, and its associated catalog, attempts to provide some perspective on how images, objects, and ideas traveled between and reshaped life in Europe, America, and Asia. As the first four objects in this exhibition demonstrate, prints played a particularly important role in this interchange. The European discovery of the reproducible image-making technologies of the woodcut and the engraving in the years just prior to Columbus’s voyages greatly facilitated the transfer of visual information and ideas between Europe and the newly discovered world. The first two images in the exhibition, the Last Judgement (1493) and the Garden of Love (1599), both functioned in this way. The former was used to export Christian millennialism to the New World, where it found fertile ground in the mendicant missions of New Spain even as its pictorial language was translated into a more hybrid form. While the Dutch Garden of Love was also a European product, the history of its foreign reception is markedly different. This image, or one much like it, would seem to have found its way via European merchants to Japan, where it was used as the inspiration for a decorative screen intended for Japanese patrons fascinated with the exotic people, practices, and artistic techniques of distant Europe.

Other prints were used to bring knowledge of the newly expanded world back to Europe, albeit often in a highly mediated fashion. The image of Johann Adam Schall (1667) from Jesuit author Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata is not only a pictorial demonstration of Jesuit missionary strategies at the court of China, but also brings China to Europe where it might be understood through both new and preexisting cultural and ideological constructs. Similarly, while John Lodge’s People of Florida Sacrificing Their First Born to the Sun (1778) purports to depict the indigenous cultural practices of Florida, it likely tells us as at least as much about how the New World was understood in Europe, both generally and at this particular point in English history.

While the printed image was certainly important in this period of intensified cultural interchange, objects too traveled [4]. Europeans were particularly fascinated by the unique properties of Chinese porcelain and it was imported into Europe, especially by the Dutch, at a fantastic rate. The interest in this expensive, exotic, and desirable import led to the creation of an industry centered in Delft dedicated to the production of a cheaper, locally-produced alternative. Like many other objects produced in Europe at this time, the tile (17th century?) in this exhibition attempted to imitate the appearance of a foreign luxury and, in this way, make the exotic more easily accessible.

However, Chinese porcelain retained its desirability, in part due to the unique properties of the material itself. Although Europeans eventually discovered how to produce a type of porcelain around the start of the 18th century, porcelain, both Chinese and European, continued to be a valuable and exotic luxury item both in Europe and in the Americas. The tea bowl (ca. 1820) that is included in this exhibition is a testament to that, but, like the piece of a pipe (late 17th century?) also found here, it is also an important marker of another sort of cultural transformation. New plants and animals  entered Europe from America and Asia and profoundly changed cultural and culinary practices. Corn, squash, chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and tobacco all came from the Americas, while sugar, spices, tea, and coffee were imported from Asia and the Middle East. In particular, the “soft drugs” of coffee, chocolate, sugar, tea, and tobacco greatly changed European life and created new behaviors, meanings, and social rituals. Thus, when thought of in terms of the substances that they were intended to dispense, the tea bowl and pipe powerfully testify to the social changes brought about the newly interconnected world.

While no exhibition, let alone one of such limited scope, can give a full account of the global changes brought about by the Age of Exploration, each object or image in this exhibition embodies these changes and gives some indication of their significance. The catalog entries which follow explore these objects in a variety of different ways and from multiple perspectives. Examining these artifacts of material and visual cultural historically in both European and non-European contexts, these discussions recapture some of the cultural complexity of the profoundly globalized world which began around 1492 and which we are still experiencing today.

Dr. Barnaby Nygren

Exhibition object list


[1] The impact of Asian goods on Europe and America has been treated in two recent exhibitions and their associated catalogs. See Dennis Carr, Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia (Boston: MFA Publications, 2015) and Karina H. Corrigan, Jan van Campen, and Femke Dierck, eds., Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.)

[2] For a discussion of the use of printed images in conveying knowledge, including knowledge of newly discovered lands, see Susan Dackerman, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[3] Recent anthologies that attempt to address these and other issues include: Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen, eds., Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 2002); Timothy, Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008); Paula Findlen, ed., Early Modern Things: Objects and Their Histories, 1500-1800 (London: Routledge, 2013); Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, eds., The Global Life of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (London: Routledge, 2016).

[4] For a more general discussion of material culture with much early modern material see Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, eds. Writing Material Culture (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).