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Facts About Middle American and Andean Sculpture

Updated on April 5, 2014

The peoples of Middle America (Mexico and Central America) and the Andes, who were richer and more highly organized than the tribal groups of North America, are considered civilized rather than primitive. Their art is discussed here, however, because it has common roots with tribal art and because these peoples lacked such elements of civilization as political consolidation, in Middle America, and writing, in the Andes.


San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Olmec Sculpture, Veracruz, Mexico.
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Olmec Sculpture, Veracruz, Mexico. | Source

Underlying the later agricultural societies that developed in Middle America was the Olmec civilization (about 12th–5th century B.C.) at La Venta and other centers on the southeastern coast of Mexico. Olmec tombs, covered by the ubiquitous Middle American pyramid, have yielded human figurines and carved celts in clay, jade, and serpentine, together with pottery in figural shapes. Typically the bond tends to be chunky and the head to have a long cranium, long, narrow eyes, and a half-open, down-at-the corners mouth.

Colossal basaltic stone figures and heads, up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) high, apparently were set in relation to architectural forms. Believed to be memorial generic "portraits" of important persons, they have heavy facial features and headdresses like football helmets. Remarkably fantastic and powerful is the werejaguar head, the fundamental style for all Olmec deities, which appeared in all sizes and materials, but especially in much-prized jade.


Zapotec and Teotihuacán

Successors to the Olmec were the Zapotec in western Mexico (about 550 B.C.–900 A.D.) and Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico (about 2d century B.C.–6th century A.D.). The "danzantes" stone figures in low reliefs lining the entrance to a Zapotec pyramid tomb at Monte Alban show Olmec influence strongly. The Zapotec also carved jade figures and modeled fairly large clay urns representing figures with elaborate headdresses.

The sculpture of Teotihuacán tends to be rigid, formal, and highly symbolic. Each step of a famous five-step pyramid called the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered-serpent god) is richly carved with alternating heads of the rain god and the feathered-serpent god. Teotihuacán also produced distinctive stone masks of open-mouthed humans and many hand-molded small clay heads and figurines.



The elaborate Maya civilization was at its height first in southeastern Mexico and Guatemala (about 300 B.C.–900 A.D.) and then, remodeled by Toltec invaders, to the north in Yucatán (about 900–1200). In the early period in such ceremonial centers as Tikal and Yaxchilan, stone roof combs, high walls raising from temple roofs, were decorated with carved openwork or reliefs. Stone stelae were carved in high and low relief with stylized human, animal, and hybrid forms and square glyphs recording the date and other matters. Stone or stucco reliefs adorned the stairways, facades, and interiors of temples and palaces. Most of this work was painted. The Maya also modeled elegant clay figurines.

In the later Mayan period in Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and other centers, the roof comb was replaced by the flying facade, an upward continuation of the front wall. Stelae were rare, but facades were carved with allover geometric patterns and projecting figures and heads.



The militaristic Toltec civilization (10th–12th century), which centered at Tula in the Valley of Mexico and extended to Yucatán, created new styles. Pyramids and other structures were decorated with low-relief friezes in a linear style painted red, white, and black. They showed ceremonial scenes of combat or human sacrifice and jaguars and eagles symbolizing military societies. Great columns at temple entrances carved to represent the feathered-serpent god were a major innovation. They were made in three parts, the head as base, the body rising above it, and the tail and rattles extended to support the lintel. There were large and small multipartite columns in the form of caryatids and atlantes. Especially famous are the Chacmools, large recumbent human figures with hollowed abdomens to hold offerings.



The Aztec civilization (15th–16th century), similar to the Toltec, produced reliefs incorporating figures and hieroglyphs and, most notably, free-standing stone sculpture. Many Aztec deity figures, such as the Mother of the Gods, 8 feet (2.4 meters) high, are colossal and grotesque.

Some figures have skulls instead of heads, and some are simple, strong, naturalistic forms stressing volume and heavy masses; many are roughly four-sided, suggesting the original stone block.


The Mochica culture in Peru (3d century B.C.–1st century A.D.) was distinguished by its fine polished pottery, painted red, white, and black. Many vessels were modeled realistically in the form of human or animal figures or emotionally expressive portraits. Some were topped by a stirrup-spout, a tubular loop and spout.


Monumental stone sculpture is characteristic of the Tiahuanaco civilization, which flourished in Peru and Bolivia about 1000 A.D. The most famous is the Gateway of the Sun, a monolithic structure about 9 feet (2.7 meters) high. Across the top is a frieze in very low relief with incised detail, consisting of a conventionalized human figure, with a short blocklike body and large rectangular head flanked by rows of rectangular, condor-headed running figures. There are also huge, free-standing human figures, including one almost 24 feet (7.3 meters) high. All are blocklike and proportioned to emphasize the large, rectangular head. The Tiahuanaco style influenced later Andean sculpture.


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