Good as gold
The Met showcases luxury arts of the ancient Americas
BY MARY GREGORY
What’s as good as gold? As evidenced by The Met’s dazzling exhibition, “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas,” silver, platinum, turquoise, jade, stone, textile and feathers fit the bill. Feathers were, for many ancient peoples of Mexico, Mesoamerica and South America, more valued than gold, a fact that carried through to the time of the Conquistadors, who found it quite confusing.
When Christopher Columbus arrived on the coast of Central America in 1502, he was greeted by local people adorned in fabulous gold. Pieces they wore can be seen in the exhibition, as can some of the effects of that encounter. Columbus named the spot “Costa Rica” or rich coast. Word spread and others arrived, seeking treasure.
Yet, in central Mexico, records indicate that feather-working was a more respected art form than gold-working. One of the exhibition’s openers is a remarkable tabard, a kind of square poncho, worked in yellow, white and blue feathers made in Peru around 600 AD. Later, we see another, decorated with pelican shapes in bright cyan and gold from the Chimú culture. A showstopper is The Met’s own massive blue and yellow Wari feather panel from about the same period. It was found in 1943, buried in large ceramic jars in the dusty western foothills of the Andes. The macaws, whose feathers (tens of thousands of them) are woven into the panel, lived vast distances away in the Amazon rainforest. That gives an idea of how prized feathers were and leads us to wonder what it took to get them there.
Reddish-orange Spondylus shells were held more valuable than gold by the Incas; jade was tops for the Maya and Olmecs. The Aztecs prized turquoise and obsidian. Rich textiles were adored everywhere. But a river of gold ran through all the region, and jewelry and ritual items in gold make up the majority of this thought-provoking and surprising exhibition.
Some 300 pieces from over 50 museums in 12 countries stretch across several galleries, offering glimpses of the “luxury arts” from Peru in the south to Mexico in the north, from around 1000 B.C. to the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century. Luxury items, the curators point out, are small, transportable and precious. They proclaimed power and wealth to those who saw them, and impressed others, hundreds of miles away, when items functioned as ambassadors to other lands.
The exhibition is filled with objects of delicate, fearsome or jaw-dropping beauty that, through extraordinary materials and craftsmanship, are signifiers of status, means of communication, agents of change, links to the supernatural realm and guarantors of eternity. Gold was in use in the Andes as early as the second millennium B.C., and worked its way into Central American and Mexican art over the course of the next several hundred years. The Nahua people, from an area that spans Mexico and El Salvador, called gold teocuitlatl meaning “divine excrement.” The sun was believed to dive into the underworld at night, shedding bits of its radiance.
Among the highlights are gorgeous crowns, earrings (worn through enlarged piercings in the lobes), nose ornaments and pectorals worn on the chest. They vary from charmingly naturalistic, like a selection of bells in the shapes of crabs and owls, to starkly abstract flat spirals, to works that delightfully bridge imagination, realism and abstraction. An amazing piece is a Caucan “bird-man” pectoral from ca. 900-1600 AD. Arching feathers or hairs, delineated by infinitesimal flawless striations, sprout from the head. A stylized axe mirrors that shape and balances the bottom. In between, the anthropomorphized little figure has a beak, two arms with tiny fingers holding lizards, bent knees, small shin protectors and teeny toes, all painstakingly depicted in a size that would fit in the palm of a hand. Not man, not bird, but art, it’s spectacular.
The works in “Golden Kingdoms” were created for gods and goddesses, kings and queens. They attest to the highest level of artistry, mysterious mindsets and the merciless march of time. Some stayed buried for thousands of years. Some traveled to kingdoms their owners never imagined existed. A stunning, rare turquoise mosaic is built of tiny bits of blue-green stone forming a mask framed by the jaws of some mythical creature. The healing properties of turquoise (speckles of this type of stone were eaten by victims of lightning strikes) and the exquisite craftsmanship may have protected the work in its long journey. Now, it’s in the collection of Museo delle Civiltà in Rome. At one time, it belonged to Cosimo de’ Medici.
It was a survivor, like all the works in the exhibition, whispering of distant pasts, complex, harsh histories and, at times, unpleasant realities. Some of the pieces in the show were used in practices that included human sacrifice. “Golden Kingdoms” isn’t a primer on cultures and their history, geography, cosmology and spiritual practices. For that, you’ll have to do your own archeological digging. Rather, it’s a window into one glittering, shining aspect of ancient art that crossed borders, cultures and centuries, and a chance to reflect on dominion, power, and their costs.
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