A Story About Pre-columbian Mosaic Art

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Art in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century was as diverse as the can be imagined. Great civilizations ruled this earth, from Olmec, Aztec, and Maya in Mesoamerica, to the Inca in the South and each of these cultures left a specific mark in the history of art.

Since many Pre-Columbian cultures did not have alphabets, images were used as a way to express their secular and religious views, to explain their philosophy and to communicate. They were both utilitarian and decorative, serving different ritualistic or representational purposes. Before the Europeans came to the American land, and even after, artists of pre-Hispanic cultures have already created a great variety of artifacts, employing different media and materials. They painted on textile, leather, rock and cave walls, produced ceramics and elaborate architecture embellished with murals, had painted on wood and were quite prolific in body art. Due to the natural wealth of the land, ancient American artists had a wide range of materials to choose from and they often used gold, silver, shells, obsidian, and gemstones. In this opulent creative environment, mosaic art was one of the common techniques for the creation of masks or different decorations.

Stylistically, Pre-Columbian art and mosaics weren’t exactly representational. Leaning on their complex belief systems, all of these cultures favored physical abilities and character rather than depicting exact likenesses. They held sensory features of the work in high regard, as well as the quality of execution and the luxury of the material. Many of the excavated works were discovered far from their original places of production, which indicates that the Pre-Columbian people used to collect pieces from other civilizations and places and that impressive workmanship was widely respected. Further, some of the locally made works were constructed with materials not typical of the region, testifying the omnipresent attitude toward precious materials and their value.

Pre-Columbian mosaics are rarely described as mosaics per se, but the inlaying technique can definitely place them within this method. Pieces of serpentine, malachite, turquoise and shell were used to make mosaic art embellishments since the Olmec times. They were never cut into tesserae as is the tradition in ancient European cultures, but fragments of these stones came in different shapes and sizes. The Olmec culture, for example, is famous for the elaborate pavings created out of serpentine inlays, featuring stylized jaguar masks. Aztec skulls, masks, and knives were mostly encrusted with turquoise, malachite and shell, while the eyes were made out of iron pyrites. Wall mosaics were generally rare, but the Maya did create them after the year 800 AD inside their sophisticated palaces.

Examples of mosaic art use during Pre-Columbian times are many and they cannot be grouped around one single purpose. From small objects, jewelry, decorations, over masks, skulls and ritual tools, to walls and pavements, mosaic art was used to decorate the most treasured items or areas. Every notable Pre-Columbian art museum will have an example of this craft, and we will mention only some of the most prominent ones.

Olmec Mosaics at the La Venta Complex

Some of the oldest mosaic art examples of Pre-Columbian art belong to the Mesoamerican “mother culture”, the Olmec. Developed as one of the first civilizations in the Americas, Olmecs left behind a significant heritage in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco. The vast archaeological site “La Venta” contains a number of artifacts telling the story of their life and belief system. Within its Complex A, three rectangular floor mosaics were found. Often called pavements, they measure about 15 x 20 ft, and each has about 485 blocks of serpentine. These blocks are arranged to show typical abstract Olmec motifs, from a bar-and-four-dots ornament, the Olmec Dragon, a jaguar mask, a cosmogram and a map of La Venta. Interestingly, these pavements were covered with colored clay and earth soon after completion, which might testify to their ritual function.

Zapotec Mosaics at Mitla

Located in Oaxaca state in southwest Mexico, Mitla is a famous Zapotec archaeological site. In their ancient language, it meant “A Place of Rest”, which indicates that this vast architectural complex was used as a burial site.

Elaborately planned and built, Mitla features a number of monochrome wall mosaics that testify to the Zapotec craftsmanship and sense for architectural decoration. Divided into five groups according to the location within the complex and featuring six distinct patterns, Mitla mosaics were created with pieces of cut stone inlaid onto panels. Often referred to as “fretwork”, Mitla creations are known as step-fret designs, similar to those found at the very beginning of European ancient civilizations. Abstract in design, these mosaics are rumored to present a coded language, but this claim hasn’t been scientifically confirmed yet.

mosaic art

Turquoise mosaic mask of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. Aztec or Mixtec (AD 1400-1521), in the British Museum. Photo credit – British Museum

The Mixtec – Masters of Fine Mosaic

When it comes to fine mosaic artwork in turquoise and shell, the Mixtecs are known as the true masters of the craft. Their culture originates in northern Oaxaca, and their artists were often employed in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan even after the 15th century. Their masks, disks, skulls and other objects embellished with mosaic art demonstrate a masterful workmanship and are frequently decorated with motifs from Mixtec or Aztec religion. They represent gods and godlike beings and feature images such as the serpent, mythological scenes, or even calendrical markings.

The British Museum has one of the finest collections of nine turquoise Pre-Columbian mosaics, that contain a Mixtec Serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl or Tlaloc, a decorated Mosaic Skull Mask of Tezcatlipoca and the “Spotty” Mosaic Mask among others, all wonderful examples of Mixtec and Aztec artistry.

mosaic art

Aztec Double-Headed Serpent – detail. Photo credit British Museum

Aztec Feathered Serpent – The Icon of Aztec Art

Perhaps the most famous artifact from the Aztec period is the famous Double-headed Serpent, a beautifully executed wooden sculpture encrusted in turquoise, spiny oyster and conch shell mosaic art. Probably a representation of the serpent-god Quetzalcoatl, the item was dated to the 15th or 16th century. It was most probably used in religious rituals, but it is also possible that the sculpture was a gift given to Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes by the renowned Aztec emperor Moctezuma II.

The undulating sculpture is based on a single block of cedar, hollowed out from the back to make the piece lighter. The gilded background has now almost completely faded, while the front-end tesserae (some of which are now missing) were attached to the wooden surface with pine resin. Snake eyes are only holes today, but in the past, they were probably made out of iron pyrite. Bright red contrasts balance the turquoise body of the piece, found on each end decorating the snake’s heads. Because of its condition and execution, the Double-headed Serpent is known as one of the most important artifacts of Aztec culture in Europe, counting as one of only 25 similar pieces on the continent.

mosaic art

Aztec Double-Headed Serpent – detail. Photo credit British Museum

mosaic art

Turquoise mask representing the god w-Tezcatlipoca (one of the Aztec creator gods). The base for this mask is a human skull. Photo Credit British Museum

mosaic art

Turquoise mosaic mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire. Aztec or Mixtec (AD 1400-1521), in the British Museum. Photo Credit Simon Burchell

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