Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 30, 2018
Virginia M. Fields, John M. D. Pohl, and Victoria I. Lyall Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico Exh. cat. 2014. 256 pp.; 240 ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781857597417)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 1, 2012–July 1, 2012.
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Installation view, Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico, April 1–July 1, 2012 (photograph © 2012 Museum Associates; provided by LACMA)

In recent decades, American and European museums have mounted major exhibitions highlighting individual Mesoamerican cultures, notably the Olmec, the Maya, and the Aztecs. Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico has a different focus. Using the culture hero Quetzalcoatl as its pivot, the exhibition and accompanying book investigate cultural and artistic traditions across Mesoamerica, and even beyond, during the period immediately preceding the Spanish conquest, known as the Postclassic (AD 950–1521). The exhibition was originally planned by curator Virginia M. Fields of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who sadly did not live to see the project completed. Fortunately, guest curator and anthropologist John M. D. Pohl, a specialist in the cultures of highland Mexico, and then-associate curator Victoria I. Lyall, an art historian and a Mayanist, ably shepherded the exhibition and catalog to fruition. Entire volumes have been written about Quetzalcoatl, but this is the first to set this mythic figure within a rich visual context.

Who was the Plumed Serpent, called Quetzalcoatl in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs? While images of feather-covered snakes are seen in Mesoamerica at least as early as the Classic period (AD 250–900), it is during the following centuries that Quetzalcoatl becomes a dominant presence among several groups, ranging from the Maya of Yucatan to the Mixtecs of southern Mexico. There are indigenous and Spanish colonial accounts about this enigmatic figure, known as both a king and a god, but they are often unclear or contradictory. Whatever his origins, this mytho-historical figure evolves into a culture hero, dynastic founder, and creator deity, whose cult united disparate groups and transcended linguistic and cultural boundaries. He may be represented as a feathered serpent or in human form, with distinctive attributes such as a conical cap and a pectoral made of the cross section of a conch shell.  

The volume comprises seventeen essays, with shorter sidebars focusing on a single object, medium, or concept interspersed among the longer entries. The introductory essay by the cocurators sets the stage. Among the points they make is that the followers or “children” of the Plumed Serpent, particularly those who once lived in the modern-day states of Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Oaxaca, shared a common ideology and struck strategic alliances through commerce and marriage. They developed an art style and a related pictographic writing system, usually called Mixteca-Puebla, which was manifested primarily in small-scale objects: polychrome ceramics, painted books, metals, precious stones, bone, and shell. Many of the objects appearing in the book are examples of this style, some well known to specialists but never seen together in a single exhibition. Among these are codices (of deerskin or European paper), lienzos (large painted cloths) and maps, fragile objects scattered in collections around the world that are not often on display and rarely travel.

Short entries highlight recent finds at the site of Tula, where Quetzalcoatl may once have ruled. One of these is a spectacular tunic comprised of pierced spondylus shell pieces which would originally have been sewn onto fabric. Part of a ritual offering, the garment was found with whole spondylus shells, fan coral, and a turquoise-covered wooden disk. These materials point to the wide-ranging trade or tribute relations of the Toltecs: turquoise could only have been obtained in what is now the southwestern United States, while the marine material came from the Pacific.

Lyall examines the wide distribution of plumbate ware, a ceramic type with a glossy gray or brown surface. This distinctive pottery, made in the riverine area straddling the Mexican-Guatemalan border along the Pacific coast, was a prestige trade item from northern Mexico to Central America during the Early Postclassic period (ca. 900–1200). Large quantities of this ware were uncovered at Tula, including the most extraordinary example, an effigy vessel of a warrior’s head emerging from the jaws of a coyote. The whole vessel was then covered in silvery shell mosaic. It was deposited close to a round temple, a type associated with the worship of Quetzalcoatl.  

It is a welcome surprise that several essays here focus on the major site of Cholula in the state of Puebla, now largely covered by a modern town. As Gabriela Uruñuela and Patricia Plunket observe, archaeological work here has been hindered by urban development that has caused considerable damage over many years. Furthermore, Cholula is often overlooked because it does not fit easily into the narrative of Mesoamerican prehistory. Occupied by 1000 BC, it rose and declined periodically over the following centuries. At the time of the Spanish conquest, it was the capital of a kingdom independent of the Aztecs, with whom Cholula had a complicated and shifting relationship.

The dominant feature of Cholula’s landscape today is a great mound topped by a Catholic church—the largest pyramid in the Americas. That structure, however, had long been abandoned by the time Europeans saw the city. During the Postclassic era, Cholula became Mesoamerica’s most important pilgrimage center for the veneration of Quetzalcoatl, with a large temple (no longer extant) dedicated to his worship erected on the main plaza. Anthropologist Timothy J. Knab, who lives in Cholula, brings the reader up to the present with his fascinating account of the town’s contemporary “baroque system” of civic and religious celebrations controlled by two competing municipalities. Although Cholula is best known for the pyramid and murals found within it, a few examples of portable art from the region were included in the exhibition, along with a colonial ceramic chalice in pure Mixteca-Puebla style. A late sixteenth-century stone relief depicts Cholula’s coat of arms in a bilingual manner, naming it both in Aztec hieroglyphic form and in Latin script, with the image of a church bell added to signify the town’s conversion to Christianity.

The Mixtecs of Oaxaca, conquered in the late fifteenth century by the Aztecs, also receive their due: their talented artisans contributed greatly to the explosion of artistic production in central Mexico during the decades before the arrival of the Europeans. Mixtec metalsmiths perfected the art of lost-wax casting, creating exquisite jewelry in which gold and silver were often combined with turquoise, coral, and other precious materials. As Mexican scholar Martha Carmona Macías points out in her short introduction to Mixtec metalworking, within three months of their conquest of the Aztec capital, the Spanish were sacking Mixtec villages in search of gold. A few of these pieces, mostly looted but some excavated in the 1930s from a spectacular tomb at Monte Albán, are illustrated in the catalog.

Anthropologist Ronald Spores notes that only two Mixtec sites have been systematically mapped and excavated. One of these is Yucundaa, Oaxaca, occupied on and off from 100 BC until its abandonment around 1550. A vivid reconstruction painting of the civic and religious heart of city as it would have appeared not long after the Spanish conquest brings Yucundaa alive to the modern viewer. Among the one hundred burials discovered here are some associated with the Dominican church established there around 1529–30. The dead, many undoubtedly killed by the epidemics that accompanied the Spaniards, were buried with both indigenous and Christian symbols. Spores illustrates one such burial, of a woman interred with an offering of over seventy thousand objects. 

The book concludes with a discussion of two contemporary Mixtec huipils (woman’s traditional dresses) by the curator of the Museum of Textiles in Oaxaca, Alejandro de Ávila Blomberg. Their patterns recall both the stone mosaics present on Pre-Columbian buildings in highland Oaxaca and European motifs like the Hapsburg eagle. Abstract serpents, some plumed, also adorn these elegant garments.

The volume is beautifully produced, with many color illustrations, some full page. While it was not possible to reproduce every object in the exhibition—there were well over two hundred—there is a checklist at the end indicating the order and context in which they were displayed. Several items illustrated, particularly in shell, are Native American, and their inclusion in the book might confuse some readers since no contributor discusses them. In the exhibition, however, they were placed in context, revealing the far-flung connections and cosmopolitanism of Mesoamerica during the Postclassic period.

One of the last illustrations in the book is of a large coiled feathered serpent, carved from the volcanic stone typical of the Valley of Mexico. In the sixteenth century a cavity was hollowed out and the mythical creature repurposed as a baptismal font. While the reuse of Prehispanic spolia was not uncommon at this time, this transformation of an Aztec “idol” seems particularly potent. Surely it was not merely an act of convenience, but one designed to mark the triumph of Christianity over pagan gods. How did native converts react to seeing Quetzalcoatl again in a Christian context? We will never know, but the strange hybrid object bears witness not only to the momentous encounter between Mesoamericans and Spaniards, but also to the tenacity of ancient symbols. Belief in feathered serpents persists among some indigenous groups today. As the coauthors note, Quetzalcoatl has never really disappeared, and remains an inspiration to writers, activists, and artists in Mexico and the United States.

Virginia Miller
Associate Professor Emerita, Department of Art History, University of Illinois, Chicago

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