Legend has it that a Jesuit priest once kept it concealed under his bed. Whether or not that’s true, for a long time nobody knew the whereabouts of the monstrance of the Church of Saint Ignatius of Bogotá, an extraordinary example of 18th-century goldsmithing known popularly as La Lechuga (The Lettuce) because of the green hue of its 1,485 emeralds.
Meant to hold the consecrated host as part of the Catholic Church’s rites, this particular monstrance was wrought by the Spaniard José Galaz, who took seven years to create what is one of the most valuable and symbolic religious jewels in all of Latin America.
The piece is made with five kilograms of gold and 1,700 precious stones, including diamonds, pearls, amethysts, rubies, a sapphire and a topaz
It was made with five kilograms of gold and 1,700 precious stones, including diamonds, pearls, amethysts, rubies, a sapphire and a topaz, besides all the emeralds – of which Colombia is the world’s leading producer.
As of Monday, La Lechuga is on display at Madrid’s Prado Museum as part of the parallel events organized by Colombia, this year’s guest country at Arco, the contemporary art fair.
The show also coincides with an official visit to Spain by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
This is the first time that La Lechuga has left its native country for display purposes.
“Work got underway in 1700 on commission from the Jesuits, who were expelled from the former Nueva Granada [the colonial-era name for Colombia] three times. That is why the trail was lost for a while,” explains Efraín Traiño, director of the Art Unit and other collections at the Bank of the Republic, where La Lechuga is normally kept. “In the mid-1980s the Jesuits offered us the piece, which was acquired for $2.5 million.”
Insurance companies currently value the artwork at $3-4 million.
Prado director Miguel Zugaza said that it is “a dream” to be able to host an exceptional piece of art, “which allows us to travel to the El Dorado that was America,” the news agency Efe reported.
Zugaza also noted that the year 2019 will be of particular importance for both Colombia and the Prado, as the former celebrates the bicentennial of its independence and the latter the bicentennial of its public inauguration. This coincidence will give them “the opportunity to work together again.”
Sun, vine and angels
La Lechuga will remain on display until May 31 at Hall 18 A of the museum’s Villanueva building. Javier Portús, the scientific curator of the show, underscored the economic and symbolic value of this “masterpiece of Colombian art history.”
The monstrance, which represents the sun, the vine and the angels, was protected by members of the Society of Jesus and kept intact for three centuries despite the three Jesuit expulsions ordered by Spanish king Carlos III in 1767 and by the Colombian presidents José Hilario López in 1850 and Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera in 1861.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century – when the confiscated goods were returned to the religious order – that the monstrance went back to its display case inside the church of Saint Ignatius in Bogotá.