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Nahua Art and Ritual of Ancient Southern Mexico

nahua artNahua Effigy Censer

(Xantil), Nahua, Teotitian Del Camino, Oaxaca, Late Postclassic, 1300 - 1500 A.D. Ceramic, h. 64 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund.

found at March 18, 2007

princeton art museum 
(609) 258-3788.

PRINCETON, NJ.- This spring the Princeton University Art Museum presents the special exhibition Sorcerers of the Fifth Heaven: Nahua Art and Ritual of Ancient Southern Mexico. On view through April 28, 2007, the exhibition focuses on a rare ceramic Mexican effigy censer from 1500 A.D., just prior to the European incursion. A significant recent acquisition for the art museum, the effigy censer is not only an extraordinary example of ceramic art, but also provides a unique opportunity for study.

“Ceramic is a pervasive medium in the arts of the ancient Americas, but too often the antiquity of the objects and an almost complete lack of historical context has left scholars little to work with in their efforts to interpret function and symbolism,” notes John M.D. Pohl, the Peter Jay Sharp Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas.

“The effigy censer is an exception, because the ritual purposes for which it was created became the subject of intense study by Franciscan and Dominican friars throughout the early Colonial period,” Pohl continues. “Their written accounts provide valuable information and indicate that the effigy represents a potent spirit force known as a Maquiltonal, (meaning ‘Five Soul' in the Nahuatl language of Southern Mexico), who bears the distinguishing iconographic characteristic of a white hand painted across the mouth.”

The effigy censer is made in the shape of a seated figure with an enlarged head, expressive face, and bottle-shaped body to which tubular limbs are attached. Although much of the surface has been badly eroded, enough of the fresco survives to recognize a fundamental iconographic detail: the white hand across the mouth, which is the mark of sorcerers, astrologers, and healers, as well as witches and assassins.

Considered by its creators to have been endowed with a life force, the censer was spiritually activated by placing copal, a pine resin incense, inside its base. The smoke billowed up through the hollow body and out through the mouth, sending a prayer to the Maquiltonal, who was believed to reside, along with his four brothers, in the fifth of thirteen heavens.

“Colonial friars were both fascinated and horrified by the activities of the indigenous sorcerers, especially their use of lavishly painted screenfold books, called codices, for divination and healing,” Pohl says. “One friar wrote that the source of the iconic white hand came from the sorcerer’s practice of rubbing his fingers with quick lime and tobacco while calling upon the spirit of the Maquiltonal, invoked through the censer, to possess him as he touched the pages of the sacred book.”

Remarkably, many of the ritual practices with which the effigy censer was associated continue to the present day, despite concerted efforts over the last five centuries to eradicate them. The documentation of these rituals by sixteenth-century friars as well as modern-day observers provides art historians and archaeologists with an unparalleled opportunity to gain a more profound understanding of an ancient work of art by examining it in the context of a larger symbolic environment of related objects, Pohl contends.

The exhibition creates a symbolic environment by displaying the effigy censer in a gallery of such related objects as ancient pictographic books, diving mirrors, and polychrome feasting vessels.

Illustrated wall panels provide further interpretation and background information. Accompanying lectures this spring will examine more closely the use of related objects and the larger symbolic environment to interpret ancient works of art.

The exhibition is accompanied by the publication Sorcerers of the Fifth Heaven: Art and Ritual of Ancient Southern Mexico, written by Pohl. Both the exhibition and publication were made possible by funding from the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation. 

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