A chaotic battle scene unfolds across six panels of a folding screen. The seemingly endless amount of human bodies, animals, weapons, and buildings are difficult to differentiate without careful, slow looking. On land and sea, the battle scene pits countless warriors against one another in violent conflict. Fallen soldiers spill over the side of a boat into the water, with body parts floating around the vessel.
Canons shoot, lances impale, swords are raised, heads appear on pikes—all these details emphasize the horrors of war. Short, descriptive Spanish inscriptions on the screen, such as “Barcas cogidas en el Danubio” (boats caught on the Danube River), guide viewers.
This battle scene forms one side of a double-sided folding screen made around 1700 in the viceroyalty of New Spain; the other side shows no sense of violent conflict between warring forces, but rather is a hunt set in a bucolic forest.
The hunting scene is not free of violence though; a spotted feline attacks a fallen hunter, and is itself about to be speared by three men on horseback. Another big cat pounces on a surprised hunter on horseback. Dogs aid hunters in tracking animals. Still, the scene is largely focused on large trees, rolling hills, and delicately painted plants and flowers.
Vines, garlands, and more flowers adorn the screen’s edges on both sides. Further animating both scenes is the varied color palette, fanciful brushwork, and use of inlaid shell (here, mother-of-pearl). Our eyes can’t help but be attracted to the shell’s luster, almost playfully leading our eye across the screen. And this isn’t even the entire folding screen!
These six double-side panels are but half of an original screen that was composed of 12 panels—the half this essay focuses on is in the Brooklyn Museum today; the other half is in the Museum of Viceregal Art in Tepotzotlán near Mexico City.  This folding screen perfectly encapsulates the cosmoplitanism of colonial Mexico and its art, and the may ways that local artists borrowed from and adapted materials, forms, and subjects from near and far to create something new. It also provides a window onto several important themes: transpacific and transatlantic trade, elite and nonreligious objects, and visual transculturalism.
Made for a palace
Created for viceroy José Sarmiento de Valladares, the count of Moctezuma, the folding screen was likely made for his palace—which still rests on the main plaza or zócalo of Mexico City.  Less than a decade before his 5-year reign, the viceregal palace had been burned and partly destroyed after uprisings over food shortages in 1692. After Sarmiento de Valladares became the viceroy, he began to rebuild the palace, and needed new furnishings for the space. This lavish folding screen, with the added opulence of mother-of-pearl inlay, was likely made to help in this process of refurbishment, along with many other luxurious items. What a statement it would have made to guests who viewed it!
Folding screens (called biombos) acted as room dividers, and they were often found in state rooms and reception rooms. In the viceregal palace, a screen such as the Brooklyn Biombo most likely separated the piano nobile (formal reception hall) from the estrado (women’s sitting room). Local and international visitors who came to converse with the viceroy would have been struck by the shimmering surface of the biombo’s battle scene, while guests in the women’s sitting room would have had a fitting conversation starter with the hunting scene while they talked, drank chocolate, sewed, and smoked.
Transpacific and transatlantic trade and exchanges
As the viceroy rebuilt the palace, he filled the space with paintings of the Spanish conquest and other types of battle scenes or themes related to power—such as a series of paintings with shell inlay made by Miguel González (today in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Buenos Aires).
The battle scene on this biombo was not focused on the conquest of Mexico, which by this point had occurred more than 150 years earlier. Rather, it depicts a battle of in what is now called the Great Turkish War (1683–99). The war pitted Habsburg forces against Ottoman ones.
The Brooklyn Biombo shows the Siege of Belgrade, one battle of the War that occurred on 6 September 1688. The Tepotzotlán screen shows another battle, the Siege of Vienna, which occurred on 12 September 1683, and which resulted in the Holy League defeating Ottoman troops. When the War finally ended in 1699, Habsburg power was solidified in central and southeastern Europe.
Prints made originally in Holland served as models for the battle scenes. They were made less than thirteen years before Sarmiento de Valladares’s arrival in New Spain by the Dutch printmaker Romeyn de Hooghe. His etchings were popular in Holland among people following the war with interest, and his images were popular in New Spain as well. De Hooghe was well-known for his prints of military exploits, and they offered a way for peoples in New Spain—separated from the war by an ocean—to visualize what happened in it.
The battle scenes that play out on both the Brooklyn and Tepotzotlán panels showcase not only the violence of the war, but also cast it as one of formidable opposites. The Ottoman forces are not shown as weak nor incapable, but strong and capable warriors; showing them in this way only elevated the strength of Habsburg forces who eventually would win. The choice of these two battle scenes advertised Habsburg power—a power that extended to Sarmiento de Valladares as the Spanish Habsburg king’s representative (as viceroy) in New Spain. The battle scenes also demonstrate Sarmiento de Valladares’s allegiance to the Habsburg Crown. His coat of arms is located in the upper-left corner (on the Tepotzotlán half), no doubt to associate himself with the Habsburg rulers and their victories. His support of the Habsburgs was clearly on display for any visitor to his reception room.
While the battle scene does not show events of the Spanish Conquest of Tenochtitlan (that occurred 1519–21), it does visually parallel the many other artworks of the time that did. In another biombo (not made for Sarmiento de Valladares) that shows the Conquest, the artist paints so many battling figures that the scene is similarly chaotic. Like the Siege of Belgrade on the Brooklyn Biombo, the fighting also occurs on the water, and there is a mountainous landscape behind the scene in the top portion of the biombo. Despite the different historical moments that each artist tried to capture, they clearly drew on similar visual conventions to convey conflict between Spanish forces and their enemies. Visitors likely would have made associations with the different conflicts set on land and water.
As the use of de Hooghe’s prints indicates, local New Spanish artists adapted and transformed European prints—as was also common among artists in Europe and elsewhere that prints were sent. The hunting scene on the biombo further demonstrates the far-flung networks that connected people in the seventeenth century—across land and sea. It was not just the battle scenes painted in New Spain that were adapted from European prints. The hunting scene likewise borrowed from prints that replicated tapestries and drawings by Johannes Stradanus (Jan van der Straet) and Gobelins tapestries for the French King Louis XIV.
For instance, Harman Jansz. Muller made prints that belonged to a larger series of hunting scenes set into ornamental frames that look like the biombo: the frames have flowers, swags, and animals. They likewise show hunters in landscapes pursuing animals. Interestingly, these printed images were themselves based initially on tapestry designs made by Stradanus for Duke Cosimo de’ Medici’s villa outside of Florence. These became so popular that Stradanus (in collaboration with Philips Galle), made even more hunting scenes as engravings—all of which proved immensely popular throughout Europe.
Stradanus’s hunt scenes drew on ancient Greco-Roman textual sources including Pliny, Homer, and Herodotus. They also borrow from classicizing imagery, such as the decorative frames, swag, garlands, and ox heads. Using motifs and scenes from prints that borrowed from classicizing court objects was yet another way of transforming the biombo into an elite court object that advertised its owner as a powerful intellectual.
The influence of Asia
There are yet more layers to this complex biombo—its very form as a folding screen and aspects of its visual appearance reveal Asian (especially Japanese) influences on the visual culture of New Spain. The word biombo comes from the Japanese “byobu,” which translates literally to “protection from wind” or “wind wall.”
These portable, freestanding objects functioned as room dividers—a function that continued when they arrived in New Spain. The first Japanese byobu arrived in Mexico City around 1614 as a diplomatic gift, immediately becoming popular in elite circles. This was the result of the embassy of the samurai Hasekura Rokuemon that stopped in New Spain on its way to Rome. By the 1630s, local recreations of Japanese folding screens developed.
Goods from Asia were highly sought after luxury goods in New Spain, and as art historian Sofia Sanabrais notes, they spoke to a person’s refinement and education. When the Manila Galleon trade began after 1564 when Spain conquered the Philippines, new materials and goods began to flow across the Pacific Ocean to New Spain. In 1580, with the unification of Spain and Portugal, this also meant new access to Portuguese ports like Macau, Nagasaki, and Goa, increasing the global flow of goods. Oceans were the connective tissue not only between Asia and the Americas, but also the Americas and Europe. Importantly, the fascination with Asian objects from Japan (and other parts of Asia equally), and the local derivations of Asian goods, predates the phenomenon we now call Japonisme and Chinoiserie by centuries—these are often associated with the 18th and especially the 19th century.
Portions of the biombo, especially the floral decorations above the arches at the top and the decorative bands at the bottom, look similar to smaller portable Asian lacquer objects, also traded in New Spain. If we compare a Japanese black lacquerware to the biombo, especially the decoration on the bottom, we can see how they are visually similar. The biombo’s delicate golden decorations set against a black background parallel the types of lacquered objects from Asia that came to New Spain.
Local lacquer working traditions already existed in New Spain. These traditions predated the invasion of Europeans, and with the infusion of Asian objects into New Spain, artists still working in these Indigenous traditions began to incorporate Asian motifs and color schemes. Like the folding screen’s adaptation and emulation of Japanese screens and aesthetics, New Spanish lacquerware also looked to Japanese objects for inspiration.
Sometimes Asian lacquered objects also included gold, silver, and tortoise-shell inlay (sometimes called Namban (or Nanban) art), and they in turn—like the biombo—were adapted in New Spain. With the biombo, we see the clear influence of Namban objects on the decorative frame filled with flowers and shell. Importantly though, while the overall aesthetic hearkens to Asian lacquerware and Namban objects, many of the flowers are ones associated with Europe, such as tulips, lilies, and carnations. This is yet another powerful reminder that artists were not trying to faithfully copy artworks from any one tradition, but to adapt and transform to create something new.
As far as we know, this biombo is one of the few that exists to combine a folding screen with enconchado (or shell inlay). Around 1660, enconchado paintings became popular in New Spain, such as we see in a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe by Miguel González, and many of these paintings survive. Visually, the enconchado in the biombo and in other paintings enlivens the surface, drawing our eye to those areas that reflect light.
As already mentioned, the use of shell-inlay was common in Japanese Namban works. But shell-working and shell-inlaid objects also had a long-standing tradition in what is today Mexico. Numerous objects throughout Mesoamerica’s long history included shell, such as sculpture, disks, beads, pendants, bracelets, and more. The way the shell is incorporated into the biombo, while visually refers to Namban lacquer works, draws on techniques already present in New Spain, and reminds us that it is important to remember the role that Indigenous knowledge bearers (including artists and craftspeople) often played in the formation of New Spanish visual culture.
Courtly artists . . . from Asia?
While we are not certain who made this biombo, we do know that some of the most well-known enconchado painters, such as Juan and Miguel González, worked at the viceregal court—and made paintings for Sarmiento de Valladares, including scenes of the Conquest of Mexico sent back to Spain. For this reason, the biombo is attributed to the González Family circle.
It has been suggested that the González brothers may originally be from Asia. We know that many people from Asia came to New Spain beginning in the late 16th century, and this included artists, craftsmen, sailors, and more.  It can be challenging however to identify how many as they often changed their names upon arrival and when they converted to Christianity.
The Brooklyn Biombo speaks to the challenges with existing categories that art historians tend to use, helping us to question and reconsider how we locate, discuss, and frame objects. It also reveals the many types of art forms, ideas, and places that the biombo engages: tapestries, prints, paintings, and shell-work; ancient Greco-Roman sources, conquest narratives, and battle stories; and the locations of Spain, Florence, Antwerp, Versailles, Holland, the Philippines, Japan, and, of course, Mexico City and New Spain more broadly.
 So how did this biombo come to be split apart, and why is half in Brooklyn and half in Mexico? Most likely, the viceroy returned to Spain with the complete biombo around 1701, after the new Bourbon dynasty came to the Spanish throne. Valladares passed away in 1706, and at some point thereafter it entered into multiple collections, eventually being sold in the 1990s.
 Peoples from Asia were also forcefully relocated to the Americas as enslaved individuals or indentured laborers.
Read about the Biombo with the Conquest of Mexico and View of Mexico City
Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America (Fordham University)
Richard Aste et al., Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home 1492–1898 (Monacelli Press, 2013).
Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, “The Global Lives of Things: Material Culture in the First Global Age.” In Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello eds., The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (Routledge, 2015), pp. 1–28.
Barbara E. Mundy, “Moteuczoma Reborn: Biombo Paintings and Collective Memory in Colonial Mexico City,” Winterthur Portfolio vol. 45, no. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 2011), pp. 161–76.
Donna Pierce et al., ed., Asia & Spanish America: trans-Pacific artistic and cultural exchange, 1500–1850: papers from the 2006 Mayer Center Symposium at the Denver Art Museum (Denver: Denver Art Museum 2009).
Donna Pierce et al., ed., At the crossroads the arts of Spanish America & early global trade, 1492–1850: papers from the 2010 Mayer Center symposium at the Denver Art Museum (Denver: Denver Art Museum 2012).
Sofía Sanabrais, “From Byobu to Biombo: The Transformation of Japanese Folding Screen in Colonial Mexico,”Art History vol. 38, no. 4 (September 2015), pp. 778–91.
Sofía Sanabrais, “‘Desire and sought by the rest of the world’: Asian Art in the Hispanic World,” Art and Empire: the Golden Age of Spain, ed. Michael A. Brown (San Diego : The San Diego Museum of Art, 2019), pp. 143–158.
Michael Schreffler, The Art of Allegiance: Visual Culture and Imperial Power in Baroque New Spain (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).