Artistic Cultures of Asia and the
During the early years of the colonization of the Americas, Europeans
were confronted with flourishing civilizations that revealed a very
advanced level of cultural development. The highly impressive artistic
works of these native peoples ranged from monumental stone temples to
refined and original goldwork.
The American continent had evolved its own cultures and powerful empires prior
to the arrival of the Spaniards in 1492. Europeans, represented by the wealthy,
dominant monarchies as well as the humble colonists, destroyed, destabilized,
and transformed the peoples of the Americas and their cultures. The nomadic
tribal cultures of the great plains are not as well documented because of the
perishable nature of their goods.
However, many of the material cultures of Mexico, Guatemala, and the
Central Andes have survived, leaving spectacular ruins and artifacts.
The Art of Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica, or Middle America, is the term recognized by geographers and
archaeologists to describe the vast territory' extending from central Mexico to
the western regions of Honduras and El Salvador. The highly developed
civilizations of these areas share a common heritage, evolved from what
is regarded as the "mother culture" of the Americas, the Olmec
civilization, which existed between 1700 and 400bc. The development of
agriculture in Mesoamerica led to the formation of simple village
communities, which, in the course of time, became increasingly complex.
Their development culminated in the appearance of the so-called "high
culture" of the Olmecs, who occupied a territory along the coastline of
the Gulf of Mexico. Artists and craftsmen found aesthetic expression in
the creation of works that often served as offerings to their deities,
providing a means of placating the gods and exorcizing the difficulties
of everyday life through worship.
Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Rare example of an Aztec calendar.
Bologna University Library.
In the valley of Mexico, art objects were still confined to female
terracotta figurines associated with fertility rites. The Olmecs, on the
other hand, had already mastered certain techniques to produce works
that would endure in Mesoamerica for centuries, notably ceremonial
platforms, temple pyramids, glyphic writing, stone sculpture, and the
ritual calendar. Sculpture often took the form of gigantic-monolithic
heads realistically portraying eminent persons, until the culture
declined in about the fourth century BC. A more mature expression of art
is revealed by the highly developed cultures of the Classic Period
(AD250-900). This stage of development saw the growth of the great city
of Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico, the largest metropolis on the
entire American continent. Buildings, wall-paintings, and ceramics from
the city reveal a society characterized by intense religious activity
and a serene devotion to the gods. The Zapotec culture of Oaxaca is
deservedly considered important, not only for its monumental
architecture and its numerous stelae but also for the complex
iconography found on terracotta funerary urns. The Totonacs, who settled
along the Gulf coast, skilfully fused various cultural influences to
create excellent pieces of stone sculpture and anthropomorphic pottery,
with realistic portrayals of high-ranking individuals. In about AD900,
successive invasions by peoples from the north put an end to the
finely balanced Classic cultures and initiated the post-Classic
Polychrome ceramic vase with geometric designs
and figures and three splayed
feet in the shape of snakes,
Mixtec culture, late post-Classic period
National Anthropological Museum, Mexico City.
This was characterized by more warlike subjects and a
religious belief system that was often founded upon the ritual of human
sacrifice in order to appease the divinities. The forms of art were
designed to be awe-inspiring and to make manifest the tremendous power
of the gods. The Toltecs, who disseminated much of this new vision of
the world, were the first people in Mexico to work precious metals; but
it was the Mixtecs who were responsible for unifying Mesoameriea on the
artistic plane. Gifted craftsmen, they excelled in making objects
decorated with mosaics and in painting deerskin codices that recounted
dynastic histories, in working gold, and in producing polychrome
pottery. Later, Aztec art principally took the form of stone sculpture,
its powerfully expressive images spare and severe, conveying a strong
sense of anguish. The history of the Maya is to some extent separate
from that of Mexico. It was during the Classic period that Maya artistic
production, centred predominantly in the rainforests of Peten, reached
its highest levels of achievement. City-states like that of Tikal, which
was spread over 16 square kilometres (6 square miles), were to emerge,
characterized by tall buildings, especially temple-pyramids built of
limestone and faced with lime stucco, and a profusion of sculpture,
which was often used to decorate the most important of these structures.
In the post-Classic period, architects began to adopt the horizontal
plan, exemplified by grandiose, colonnaded buildings. Other noteworthy
areas of artistic production included earthenware, stucco sculpture,
jadeite working, and wall-painting.
Colossal monolithic head in basalt.
Olmec culture, Mexico.
Temple I. Tikal Guatemala.
The steep stepped pyramid, topped by an altar or
is typical of Maya temple-pyramids in the rainforests of
THE LAND BETWEEN TWO OCEANS
Metate in volcanic stone, first to fifth century AD.
The long land-bridge that links the two Americas, separating the
cultures of Mesoamerica to the north from those of the Andes to the
south, exhibits an extremely rich and complex history of archaeology
and art. In fact, it may be regarded both as a meeting and dispersal
point of diverse traditions. Mesoamerican cultures influenced an
area consisting of El Salvador and Honduras in the north to western
Nicaragua and Nicoya, Costa Rica, in the south. Painting and
sculpture were integrated in potter}', with receptacles being
decorated with representations of animals and divinities related to
the Mesoamerican pantheon. In sculpture, there were gigantic statues
of humans standing over animals and tables for grinding maize (metates),
giving an impression of vigour and realism. The working of jade was
also important. Eastern Nicaragua, Costa Rica (except for Nicoya).
and Panama, on the other hand, were more closely related to the
South American cultural traditions. In ceramics, the Code (Panama)
style of pottery is renowned for its exuberant colours, while in
Costa Rica, ovoid multicoloured vessels, with feline heads and legs
in relief, became the most common form of pottery. Goldwork was also
highly developed, similar both in technique and form to that of
Cup with polychrome decoration,
Cocle style, Panama.
Polychrome tripod vase with a jaguar,
National Museum, Costa Rica.
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Detail of Maya mural showing dignitary
and figures with zoomorphic
Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico.
THE PAINTED MURALS OF BONAMPAK
In 1946, painted murals were discovered at Bonampak, in the
rainforests of Chiapas in southern Mexico. These are considered to
be some of the most important works of their kind in ancient
America. The murals cover the whole wall of a small building — a
commemorative monument built by a Maya king who reigned in the
Classic period from AD776. The paintings are perfectly preserved,
thanks to a layer of limestone that had completely covered them for
centuries. Although sober in style, certain details were emphasized
by the use of a variety of bright colours; for example, the minute
portrayal of objects and ornaments that are flaunted by several
individuals. The scene depicts a
warring expedition that ends with the capture and sacrifice of
prisoners and the glorification of the victorious monarch, who
performs rituals in honour of the gods.
The paintings of Bonampak not only reveal crucial information about
episodes in the life of the Maya ruling classes, but also reveal the
presence of an artist who succeeded in combining the strict
conventions of official art with individual creativity. Such freedom
of expression appears particularly in the psychology of the main
figures and in the attentive portrayal of some of the protagonists,
whose features may be recognized in various scenes of the fresco
Detail from mural with figures of Maya dignitaries.
Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico.
THE PARADISE OF TLALOC
The god Tlaloc from a mural painting at Teotihuacan,
No other pre-Columbian city in Mexico is so rich in pictorial works
as Teotihuacan. In one of its greatest monuments, the complex of
Teplantitla, there is a fresco known as "the Paradise of Tlaloc",
because the unknown artist portrays a place of delight, serenity,
and eternal plenty. Designated for all the dead who had honoured the
gods in life, it is presided over by Tlaloc, the rain god and one of
the most important gods in the Teotihuacan pantheon. High up on the
wall is the image of Tlaloc, majestic and hieratic, the bearer of
gifts. Lower down, however, in an entirely different style, in which
the artist gives full play to his creative fantasy, is the
representation of a tropical paradise. Indicated by the lush
vegetation, it is inhabited by tranquil folk who spend their time in
games, repose, singing, and contemplation. This is a vision of the
blessed life promised to those who, throughout their lifetime, had
faithfully honoured Tlaloc.
Fragment of mural depicting plant and flower motifs,
National Anthropological Museum, Mexico City.
The Art of the Central Andes
Present-day Peru and the northwest part of Bolivia constitute the
geographical-cultural area known as the Central Andes. Despite the
challenge posed by the harsh terrain and inimical climate, or
perhaps because of this very fact, cultures flourished that were
more highly developed than any others in South America. The
extraordinary works of art created by the people of pre-Hispanic
Peru are often difficult to date precisely, but it is known that the
cultural foundations of the ancient civilizations of the Andes were
already firmly established at the settlement of Chavin de Huantar
between 1000 and 300BC. This centre was renowned for its religious
ideology and artistic style. Its magnificent stone temples were
designed with steps that opened out onto broad squares, its
sculpture included both bas-relief and carving, and its pottery,
dark in colour, was strongly figurative. During the third century
BC, the Chavin culture declined, to be succeeded by other regional
cultures, notably the Moche of the northern coast and the Nazca on
the southern coast. Over a period that lasted until AD600, they both
displayed an advanced level of artistic expression. The Moche state
built large huacas (temple structures with steps) in adobe
(sun-dried clay bricks) and decorated them with frescos. The Moche
culture is well known for its ceramic art, which was often found
accompanying the deceased to their tomb. The pieces were strongly
naturalistic, with a tendency towards moulded forms. The Nazca are
known for their ceremonial centres and cities. Bright polychrome
colours characterized both pottery and textiles, the latter being of
particular refinement and indicative of Nazca artistic sensibility.
The ruins of Chan Chan, Chimu culture.
The cloaks and ponchos were adorned with geometrical or naturalistic
motifs and utilized a number of sophisticated techniques, including
embroidery, brocading, fine needlepoint, and delicate lacework.
Around ad600, the city of Tiahuanaco (Bolivia), situated at some
4,000 metres (13,000 feet) from Lake Titicaca, imposed its rule over
a large part of Peruvian and Bolivian territory. Over time,
Tiahuanacoid culture initiated a trend towards political and
cultural unification. The artistic style of Tiahuanaco can be
clearly seen in its monumental architecture such as stone temples
with staircases, imposing ceremonial precincts, and gigantic
anthropomorphic monoliths. The Gate of the Sun is famous for the
complex religious scene carved in the architrave, portraying the
"'Staff god", one of the most important deities of the ancient
Perhaps because of the over-exploitation of local resources by the
state, Tiahuanaco went into decline in about the year AD1000, and
other regional cultures found new strength, with their art clearly
inspired by earlier local traditions. In this period (AD1000-1476)
after the collapse of Tiahuanaco. small warring states fought one
another for supremacy. The most dynamic of these states was that of
the Chimu, a confederation of dominions with its capital at Chan
Chan in the Moche Valley, the empire of which expanded along the
northern coast of Peru. Chimu art styles can be seen in monumental
architecture, decorated with geometrical or figurative bas-reliefs.
Ceramic art, usually black in colour, exhibits a repetition of
themes. In contrast to the less developed ceramic style is the
splendid metalwork, which reached a very skilful and advanced
technical level in the manufacture of tumi (ceremonial
knives), funeral masks, and orejeras (ear ornaments). The
Chimu confederation declined with the rise of the Inca civilization.
A small tribe from the valley of Cuzco that had always been
struggling to survive, the Inca gradually but inexorably subjugated
surrounding tribes and then expanded to create an empire that
stretched from southern Colombia to central Chile. A territory of
this size needed to be governed by an efficient state organization,
and the bureaucratic mechanism established for this purpose took
advantage of all the sociopolitical and technical structures already
present in Andean society. While the art and architecture of the
Inca was less elaborate and more functional, the skill and
sophistication of the artists is still impressive. Their metallurgy
was especially advanced: they introduced the technique of inlaying
shortly before the Spanish invasion and developed a wide range of
iconography, especially eagles and condors. The Inca were also
renowned for the strength of their masonry - the tight-fitting
rectangular stone blocks that characterize their buildings are
incorporated into the foundations of modern buildings at Cuzco, the
capital of the Inca.
Earthenware anthropomorphic bottle.
Vicus culture, southern Peru,
Black ceramic bottle.
Chavin culture, northern coast of Peru.
For centuries, one of the most enduring American myths has been that
of Eldorado. It originated, not by chance, in Colombia. Here,
goldwork was very highly developed, both in terms of technical
proficiency and artistic originality. Colombia was also the site of
many archaeological discoveries that revealed the presence of
advanced cultures, such as the ceremonial centres of San Agustin and
the underground tombs of Tierradentro. Gold, both in its pure state
and as a copper alloy (tumbaga), was a prominent ingredient
of its art. The metal, extracted from the mines or obtained by
leaching from river water, was first used in about the second
century BC. The Quimbaya, Tolima, and Calima cultures, more than any
others, excelled in the quantity and quality of their production.
The Valdivian culture (2300BC) of Ecuador was the first civilization
in the entire American continent to use moulded terracotta for
artistic purposes. From here on, the skill in the production of
earthenware and realistic sculpture was to characterize each
successive phase of the culture's development.
Gold anthropomorphic pendant.
Tolima culture, Colombia.
Golden box to hold limestone.
Qulmbaya culture, Colombia.
coast of Peru.
THE ICONOGRAPHY OF THE NAZCA CULTURE
Between 400BC and AD55O, the culture of the Nazca people flourished
in the oases of the coastal desert of southern Peru. They
established a powerful centralized state that controlled several
coastal valleys, where towns and ceremonial centres were built. The
art of this people, often linked to religion, was distinctive mainly
for its delicate pottery with polychrome designs. It is possible to
trace the development of manufactured earthenware objects based on
the diversity of these decorative motifs. At first, these consisted
principally of naturalistic patterns: in addition to the emphasis on
mythical figures and the presence of trophy heads, great prominence
was given to zoomorphic subjects. The Nazca bestiary was
extraordinarily varied: it included monkeys, snakes, felines, and.
above all, fish and aquatic mammals, which were represented as
particularly ferocious. Subsequently, motifs became more
conventional and bombastic, with a prevalence of warlike themes. As
Nazca culture declined, colours became less varied and motifs were
Polychrome cup, Nazca culture, southern coast of Peru.