Art of the Maya, Aztec, Inca, and the Aboriginal Canadians
The Kaminaljuyú clay figurine from the Middle to late Preclassic (1500 BC – 150 AD). (Kaminal Juyú from the Ki´ché words meaning “hills of the dead.”) / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
By Guity Novin / 03.23.2014
Graphic Designer, Artist
The Maya of Mesoamerica, together with the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru, constituted the climaxing civilizations of the native American at the time of the Spanish conquest. In fact, the pre-Spanish conquest history of Mesoamerica has been divided into three era: the pre-classic era, from the second millennium BC until the third century CE, the classic era between the third and ninth century CE, and finally the post-classic era, between the ninth and the fifteenth century. The Mayan communities burgeoned into a thriving civilization during the classic period. This was a civilization that started in the forests of the Peten in Guatemala, and the neighborhood cities like Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Copan, and Palenque, as well as in the semiarid scrublands of northern Yucatan. Both the Aztecs and the Incas, however, were late empires flourishing between the 14th and 16th centuries, and were the culminating stage of a series of civilizations in Central Mexico and the Andes in South America, respectively. The Spanish conquest by Francisco de Montejo marked the tragic end of this history. Nevertheless, many aspects of the culture of the Maya of Yucatan and Guatemala survived and continue to the present.
Ancient Olmec Civilization
The ancient Olmec civilization is believed to have been centred around the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico area (today the states of Veracruz and Tabasco) – further south east than the heart of the Aztec empire. The Olmec culture developed in the centuries before 1200 BCE, and declined around 400 BCE.
British Museum, London
There are very few written records about the culture. In fact, at first Olmec artifacts were thought to be Mayan, and the Mayans were thought to be the first great culture in the area. It is believed that they may have been early adopters of the complex religious system that the Mayans and the Aztecs would use. Temple mounds, jaguars, many gods, and perhaps even human sacrifice were used by the Olmec society. The jaguar is a common figure in Olmec religion – especially combined with a snake or human child.
Olmec mother / British Museum, London
The layout of their newer city (after the decline of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán), La Venta, would be copied by future societies. The calendar used for centuries in Mexico may also have originated with the Olmec. Their astronomy was also carried on by later groups. They were probably obsess with the timing of religious ritual, as the Mayans and Aztec would be after them.
Preclásico en el altiplano/ National Anthropological Museum, Mexico City
The Mayan Culture
The Mayan civilization thrived on the availability of surplus labour from its cornfields. During an estimated five months of a year that corn farmers were idle, their manual labour was exploited by the gentry and the temple establishment to construct the Mayan palaces, monuments, and temples. Like any other civilization, the Mayan artists resorted to art to reflect on their culture and on their mode of life, and their art stroked agreeable chords with the man of power both, inside or outside the temple, and so they were sustained in order to decorate their temples and their palaces. The Mayan artist developed an authentic style, which was whimsical and colorful. The subject of their art was mostly narrative. Their works were reflection on their society and its powerful people and their interactions with ordinary folks and their beliefs. Their compositions were highly elaborate and with a heavy emphasis on the interrelationships of lines which were delineating the organic figures as well as the geometric shapes. They painted their designs over special paper and plaster, carved them in wood, stone, clay and stucco models; and terra cotta figurines from molds and on small metal ornaments.
The Mayans had a complex pantheon of deities. Like the Greeks they believed their rulers were the descendants of the gods. They believed, the soul after death will go to the Underworld, Xibalba, a frightful place where demonic gods deceived, befuddled and tested them. According to the Mayan mythology of creation, the Popol Vuh, Gods came to earth and made man in their own image. However, at first they created man far too perfect, since they lived as long as the gods and had all the power and attributes of Gods. This made the Gods quite fearful and so they destroyed the first mankind. In the next trial, the frail ‘human’, as he exists today was created, and like the Christian Lord, the Mayan Gods promise to return to earth one day. These Gods include:
Chac, the god of rain and thunder. He was important as the god of agriculture and fertility. He was the embodiment of four other gods: “Chac Xib Chac”, Red Chac of the East; “Sac Xib Chac”, White North Chac; “Ek Xib Chac” Black West Chac”, and “Kan Xib Chac”, Yellow East Chac. In art, he was generally depicted as an old man with some frog-like features, as he was associated with the frog. Other distinguishing feature of Chac were his fangs and a long nose, and more importantly symbolizing rain he is generally depicted with tears dropping from his eyes and carrying an axe , as a symbol of thunder.
Kinich Ahau was the Sun god, and the patron god of the city of Itzamal, where he visited the city at noon everyday in the disguise of macaw and consume prepared offerings. In art, Kinich Ahau is usually shown with jaguar-like features, and wears the symbol of Kin, a Mayan day. Like Apollo, the Greek sun god, Ahau was associated with poetry and music.
Yumil Kaxob, was the Maize god, is a young god representing the ripe grain which was the economic base of the Mayan civilization. The artists depicted the Maize god with a headgear of maize and a curved streak on his cheek. Kaxob was powerless god by himself and his fortune depended on the protection of the Rain god in confronting the Death god who inflicted Kaxob with drought and famine.
Yum Cimil, was the Death god, sometimes called the god of the underworld (Ah Puch). Artists depicted him in an skeletal fashion wearing a collar with eyeless sockets. They decorated him with bones and covered his body with black spots to represent the decomposition of body after death.
Ixtab, was the Suicide goddess, and artists depicted her with a rope around her neck. The Mayan culture looked favorably upon suicide, believing that it is a path towards salvation.
Yum Caax was lord of the Woods, and is the owner of all the game. As the guardian lord of the hunters, he is also called U Kanin Ka’ax, and can appear whith his song magically during the hunt, and cause the hunter’s arrow to penetrate into the game’s skin or come back and kill the hunter.
Ix Chel, the Lady Rainbow, was an Earth and Moon goddess. She was the patron goddess of weavers and pregnant women. Her story is one of the most beautiful narratives. Ix Chel was the beloved of sun, but she was killed by a lightning thrown at her by her angry grandfather. But, dragonflies sang over her for one half of a year until she opened her eyes again, and soon she was back at the sun’s palace. However after a while, the sun became suspicious of her, thinking that she was having an affair with his brother, the morning star. He threw her out of heaven, but after awhile was sorry and asked her back only to repeat his jealousy. Ix Chel frustrated by his behavior left him and went off into the night. She remained in hiding whenever the sun was shining. She spent her time in the nights taking care of the pregnant women.
Murales de San Bartolo / Peabody Museum, Yale University
At San Bartolo, located in the Petén area of northern Guatemala , the Mayan murals dating from 100 AD depict the myth of the Maya maize god ; the colours are subtle and muted, the style, although very early, is already fully matured.The murals depicts the Maya creation myth as described in the Popol Vuh.
Dresden Codex / Saxon State Library Museum, Dresden, Germany
The Dresden Codex is an ancient Mayan script book of the eleventh or twelfth century of the Yucatecan, Maya. Such codices were primary written records of Maya civilization, together with the many inscriptions on stone monuments and stelae which survive to the present day.
This is a highly important work of art containing many ritualistic sections (including the so-called ‘almanacs’). Other segments are of an astrological nature such as eclipses and the Venus cycles. The codex was probably written just before the Spanish conquest.
There were many such books in existence at the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century, but they were destroyed in bulk by the Conquistadors and priests soon after. In particular, all codices in Yucatán were ordered to be destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in July of 1562.
Maitland Art Center and Victorian-era Waterhouse Residence Museum, Maitland, Florida
The royal audience is one of the most prevalent themes of the Mayan graphic design. In this painted Mayan vessel the king ahau is seated, in his usual decorum with folded legs, and receives visitors. Sometimes the names of the ahau and his visitors are written in glyphs.
The artists have recorded carefully, clothing styles, facial decoration, ceremonial masks worn, rules of etiquette and so forth. Many of illustrations show the style of interior design, as well as the design patterns of curtains, pillows, and thrones. Of the crucial importance to Maya social identity were head-gears. Often the ahau in his audiences wears a conical turban hat with a large flower in front of it and quetzal feathers behind; sometimes a hummingbird or fish is attached to the front of that large flower.
Cacaxtla murals / Cacaxtla Site Museum, Tlaxtala, Mexico
A visitor meeting the ruler in front of a mirror / Canadian Museum of History, Quebec
Preparing for the death of a ruler, a woman attendant hols a death mask, another attendant holds mirror / Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
Ruler being dressed in full regalia / United States National Museum, Washington D.C.
Ruler observing himself in a mirror. Although the practical ability to see one’s reflection in a mirror may have been a consideration in the elites’ desire to obtain iron-ore mirrors, it is possible that this ritual had a spiritual significance. Numerous ancient Maya monuments contain individual mirror–image glyph blocks whose component hieroglyphs face against the standard left–to–right reading order.Sequences of multiple mirror–image hieroglyphs are found on other media from the Maya realm, most on notably ceramics Mallory Matsumoto proposes that mirror–image inscriptions constituted visual metaphors related to the ritual importance of artifactual mirrors as symbols of political and religious power. Furthermore, the metaphorical significance of these texts influenced the viewer’s interpretation of and interaction with the monument. / Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Art in Ancient Aztec Civilization
The Aztec civilization refers to the culture that prevailed the Valley of Mexico in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These were the Nahua-speaking peoples in the Valley of Mexico, who at the time of the European conquest, were consider themselves either “Tenochca” or “Toltec,” which was the term persisted since the Classic Mesoamerican era. Well after the end of the Classic Period in Mesoamerica, these people we know them as Aztecs migrated from the north into the Valley of Mexico, in the twelfth century A.D.
The Aztec history, or the history of the Tenochca people is very well recorded. According to their records it began around 1168 in an island in the middle of a lake north of the Valley of Mexico. They migrated to the south as their god, Huitzilopochtli, commanded them and settled in the Valley of Mexico in 1248. The Tenochca considered themselves a peaceful society, but their practice of human sacrifice, disturbed the other communities in their vicinity, who colluded among themselves and defeated the Tenochcas. In 1300, they became vassals of the town of Culhuacan; some escaped to settle on an island in the middle of the lake. The town they founded was Tenochtitlan, or “place of the Tenochcas.”
The Codex Borbonicus is a codex written by Aztec priests shortly before or after .the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Like all pre-Columbian codices, it was originally entirely pictorial in nature, although some Spanish descriptions were later added. This is a photocopy of the original page 13 of the Codex Borbonicus, showing the 13th trecena of the Aztec sacred calendar (tonalpohualli). This 13th trecena was under the auspices of the goddess Tlazolteotl, who is portrayed wearing a flayed skin, giving birth to Cinteotl. The 13 day-signs of this trecena, starting with 1 Earthquake, 2 Flint/Knife, 3 Rain, 4 Flower, etc., are shown on the bottom row and, starting with 8 Lizard, 9 Snake, 10 Death, etc., in the column going up along the right side / Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée Nationale, Paris
The Aztec economy at the start was self-sufficient, as the villages were small and the farmers could feed the local population. But, as the island urbanized, its population needed high levels of imports from their neighboring communities. Nevertheless, a large segment of the city’s population itself were the farmers who would farm outside the city. The rest of the populace were made of a large number of priests, artisans and tradespeople. The economy was urbanized and had a bustling market with many traders and artisans. The Aztecs society differentiated was divided between the macehualles, or lower class, and the pilli, or gentry. However, upward mobility was possible for the talented and brave macehualles.
The Aztec pantheon were consisted of by three dominant gods: Huitzilopochtli, hummingbird wizard, who was the war and sun god, Tezcatlipoca, Smoking Mirror, was the head god, and Quetzalcoatl, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, who was the god of civilization, the priesthood, and learning. Beneath these gods were four remote and aloof gods who ere creators, and in their underneath there were an infinity of other gods, such as Tlaloc, the Rain God, Chalchihuitlicue, the god of growth, and Xipe, the spring god. Like the Mayans, the Aztecs believed that the universe had been created five times and destroyed four times; each of these five eras was called a Sun. The last era, the current, is Four Earthquake, and is reigned upon by Tonatiuh, the Sun-God. This age will end in earthquakes.
The Codex Borgia is one of the few surviving graphic art manuscripts of Aztecs. It is believed that it is from the central Mexican highlands near Puebla. This is an area which was under Aztec rule at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. / Apostolic Library, Vatican City
The Aztecs had two calendars one, a 260 days calendar, for their ritual year; and the other, a normal 365 days calendar for solar year. They synchronized these two calendars every fifty-two years. They believed that on the last day of each 52 year cycle, the there would be a catastrophic mayhem when the gods could decide to destroy humanity. Starting five days before the end of the cycle, they extinguished the fires in all their religious altar and destroyed all their possessions while lamenting for the doomed world. They ended each of these cycles with the New Fire Ceremony on the last day when the priests went to the Hill of the Star, a crater in the Valley of Mexico, and waited for the constellation of the Pleiades to appear. The priests would light a fire in an animal carcass, and all the fires of the Valley of Mexico would be lit from this single fire. The day after saw sacrifices, blood-letting, feasting, and renovation of possessions and houses.
Art of the Inca Civilization
The Inca empire stretched across modern day Argentina, Peru and Chile with three distinct geographical features: The Andes mountains, The Atacama desert, and the Amazon rain-forest. It lasted from 1450 to 1530 A.D., when it was destroyed by the Spanish conquest.
[LEFT]: A portrait of Manco Ccapac, first Inca ruler / Denver Art Museum
[RIGHT]: A portrait of Mama-Ocllo Huacco, wife of Manco-Ccapac / San Antonio Museum of Art
[LEFT]: Huascar (d. 1533), Emperor of the Incas who shared the throne with his younger half brother, Atahualpa, who later ordered him murdered. / Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen, Berlin
[RIGHT]: Portrait of Atahualpa / Brooklyn Museum, New York
Atahualpa (Atawallpa) was the last sovereign emperor of the Inca Empire. He was born in 1497 to emperor Huayna Capac and eventually became emperor upon wining a civil war sparked by the death of his father from smallpox contracted from European arrival in the Americas. When Atahualpa father died in 1526, the Inca Empire became split between those who supported him in the north and those who supported his brother Huáscar in the South. Atahualpa ruled from Quito and his brother from Cuzco. A bitter civil war ensued and raged until Huáscar was captured by Atahualpa’s forces in 1532. Although Huáscar had been captured, regional mistrust was still high and the population was clearly divided. Neither faction knew that a far greater menace was approaching from the coast from a band of entrepreneur “explorers” from the other side of the world.
According to Inca legends, their rulers numbered twelve as predicted by ancient oracles. Spanish historians for some reason listed only seven. However, they included the legitimate heir of Huayna Capac and the illegitimate son, Atahualpa. Huayna Capac died in 1526, the year before Pizarro landed, leaving a divided kingdom between Huascar and Atahualpa. Dissension between the brothers soon developed, and a civil war ensued. Atahualpa defeated his rival, but in 1532 Pizarro treacherously seized him at Cajamarca and murdered him the following year.
These portraits are presumably based on a series of life-size portraits which were at Cuzco when Frezier visited there in 1713. They were used in various early works on Peru, and in 1752 the Gentleman’s Magazine did a series of small woodcuts evidently taken from the same source.
Like the Mayans, and the Aztecs, the Incas were polytheistic and they practiced ancestral worship. All their deities were associated with nature such as moon, thunder, rain, mountain and so on. They even considered stones (hunacas) objects of worship. However, like Aztecs, they practiced human sacrifice, and like the Greek myth of Iphigenia, sometimes they sacrificed a most beautiful virgine and buried atop the Andean mountain peaks.
Machu Picchu, city in the sky, which is discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 is an Inca city that the Spanish had not a chance to plummet and contains the most impressive masonry and art-effects.
The Inca had a hierarchical society with the King who was considered a son of god at its summit and peasants at its base. The last king Atahualpa was overthrown by the Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro who conquered the Inca by having the advantages of horses and gunpowder, which was no match for the primitive weapons of the Inca. This conquest ended the Inca empire and destroyed its culture in 1530 AD.
Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington, D.C.
The Inca civilization attached a great deal of importance to textiles. This prompted the graphic designers to utilize textile as a conduit of their creative imagination. The Inca officials wore stylized tunics that indicated their status. The royal tunic displayed here is the highest status tunic in which no two squares are exactly the same. It contains an admixture of geometric motifs to distinguish the office its wearer. Some of the patterns are symbolic references to earlier cultures, such as the stepped diamonds of the Huari and the three step stairstep motif of the Moche. In comparison, the soldiers of the Inca army wore black and white checkerboard pattern topped with a red triangle.
Giclee Inca painting / Saint Catalina Monastery Museum, Peru
Compared to man, the women of Inca had a better chance to move up in the hierarchic society because of their weaving skills. In the cold Andes mountains, wool would keep people warm, and weaving was a women vocation. The Inca women artists would weave their stories and art into their clothes and blankets. If a woman possessed the ability to weave beautifully, she could end up in the capital of the empire, Cuzco.
This is a man’s garment of Chimu culture (1100/1400 BC) in slit tapestry. This piece shows two anthropoid figures on a red field filled with little geometric fillers. / George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
Chosen Women in the Inca society, otherwise called Acllacunas, were identified as the Virgin of the Sun, and had important economic and cultural roles. They formed a special class in the society and lived in temple convents under a vow of chastity. They lived apart from their families and communities, and their duties included the preparation of ritual food, the maintenance of a sacred fire, and the weaving of garments for the emperor and for ritual use.
Art of the Aboriginal Nations of Canada
This Kwakwaka’wakw moon mask is carved from red cedar and has copper inlays, and depicts the four stages of the moon, as well as the ebb and flood tides. / Heard Museum, McKinney, Texas
The graphic designs used to decorate various art effects of Canada’s first nations’ artifacts including; baskets, bentwood boxes, poles, masks, ceremonial objects and regalia are symbolically powerful and artistically majestic. Throughout their long history, first nations such as Nuu-chah-nulth, Musqueam, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tsimshian, and Tlingit were creators of this imaginative art.
[LEFT]: A Coast Salish Totem / British Museum, London
[RIGHT]: A Coast Salish Totem / Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
These northwest Coast Canadian communities are complex, ranked societies, with strong emphasis on clan, lineage, or family groupings. Social positions and rights to use particular ancestral crests continue to be carefully deﬁned and maintained, especially by northern groups. The tradition of marking social position through ancestry by decorating objects of daily and ceremonial use with speciﬁc images, remains an important part of these cultures.
Konankada; the Chief of the Undersea World
A red cedar bentwood Haida storage chest carved and painted with the protective image of Konankada, Chief of the Undersea World. / Canadian Museum of History, Quebec
The most common Haida artistic motif is the symmetrical flat design, made up of a complex pattern, that represents Konankada; the Chief of the Undersea World. This supernatural being is prevalent throughout the Northwest Coast, from the prehistoric levels of the Ozette archaeological site in the State of Washington to the ancient burial chests found in caves in Alaska. One of the favourite designs of the Haida, it is a two-dimensional flat depiction of Konankada with a small body and an inordinately large, broad head that has a cleft in the forehead. The eyes often contain small creatures ranging from profile heads of salmon to double-profile heads similar in form to the larger head itself. The hands are also oversize, with emphasis on the palms, which in rare cases have separate faces portrayed within them. The arms, which are narrow and tightly folded, often have fins hanging from them. All the joints of Konankada’s body are marked with eyes, heads of salmon or human faces. Some interpret these images as souls of humans or other beings temporarily contained within Konankada and awaiting rebirth into the world above the sea.
Aboriginal people erect totem poles as family crest to honor their ancestral heritage. The graphic images of; animals such as frog, beaver, raven, wolf, bear, eagle as well as human, symbolizes the families collective memories, beliefs and cultural code of conducts. Such cultural artifacts exhibit spiritual dimensions that demarcate the relationship of the man and supernatural beings through the ancestral linage. One of these myths is represented by the image a Raven holding a small object in its beak, in reference to a Prometheus-like narrative in which the Raven brings sunlight to mankind. On the Raven’s breast is a flat design image of Konankada. On the Raven’s back is a small human, whose extended tongue is joined to that of a of bird like woodpecker. Many rattles have a Frog in the place of the woodpecker, and on some, the Raven even holds a Frog in its beak in place of the sun. This may be a mythic reference to the blind Frog People who lived at the mouth of the Nass River and whose plight prompted Raven to steal the sun.
“Our Beginnings” – Art Thompson; Nuu Chah Nulth / Portland Art Museum
These rattles are complex in their meaning and as yet have not been fully decoded. A possible clue is provided by the Tsimshian myth about the Raven who returns to earth after stealing the sun from the Sky Chief and lands on his back in Prince Rupert. The Raven is freed from the rock by a flicker, which uses its sharp tongue to free it. Another Tsimshian myth tells of how the first Raven rattle was brought up on the hook of a fisherman from the Skeena River; from there, its use spread to other people on the north coast.
Nuu-chah-nulth mask. / British Museum, London
These nations were trading among themselves from the early first century AD. For example, Haidas exported their a great variety of objects; such as carved and painted chests, luded copper shields, silver and copper jewelery (after the late eighteenth century), horn bowls, ladles, spoons, and particularly their highly efficient and desired canoes to other first nations of the Canadian west coast. After their contact with Europeans, these nations adjusted their products to European taste. They created small carvings made of a soft black stone called argillite, as well as other artifacts made of ivory, silver, wooden and basketry that have found their way into European and American museum collections.
[LEFT]: Kw Gulth Bear / By Jason Hunt, Creative Commons
[RIGHT]: Haida Totem pole / Canadian Museum of History, Quebec
Copper was the ultimate symbol of wealth among the Haida and is associated with Copper Woman of Haida myth. Throughout the coast, shields made of copper were exchanged at ever higher values between chiefs at potlatch feasts. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw to the south of Haida Gwaii, coppers were particularly associated with the distribution of wealth at wedding feasts. The Haida used coppers as a marker and symbol of wealth, and some wealthy chiefs owned a dozen or more.
This beautifully engraved copper depicting a Sculpin is a classic Haida object. The bulbous top panel displays the crest of the owner, and the well-fashioned T-bar in the lower half represents the backbone of an ancestor. / British Museum, London
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