By Mildred Boyd
Compared to the riches of Peru, gold was relatively rare in meso-America and, though quills filled with gold dust were sometimes used as a medium of exchange and the glittering metal was called the “excrement of the gods”, it was far less valued than jade or even plumes for personal adornment or ritual offerings. Nevertheless, when Fray Bartolome de las Casas first viewed the treasures Cortez had sent to Charles V, he judged them “So rich, and made with such artistry they seemed a dream and not fashioned by the hands of men.”
The goldsmiths who produced the cartwheel sized golden sun and the jewelry and figurines in the form of ducks, shrimp, monkeys and tiny bells were as skilled as any European artisan. They knew how to “marry” gold and silver, weld precious metals and plate copper with gold. They also worked exquisitely in repousse, inlay and filigree and were familiar with the sophisticated technique of lost-wax casting.
The Mixtec artisans of the 15th and 16th centuries raised the craft to new heights. The tombs of Monte Alban have yielded many treasures, which, by happy accident, escaped being melted down to satisfy Spanish greed. Their artistic value far exceeds their intrinsic worth as mere gold.
Disk, Chichen Itza
Literally thousands of golden offerings have been dredged from the depths of the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza. Unfortunately, most of them had been ritually “killed” to release their spirits before being offered to the gods. This thin gold disc was crumpled into a ball but remained intact so that it could be painstakingly unrolled and copied. The artist’s sketch shows the original design which depicts an enemy warrior triumphing over two native Maya during the Toltec conquest of the Yucatan (c. A.D. 990).
This piece from Veracruz, dating from the late Classic (1250- 1521), is an excellent example of the goldsmith’s art. Thin, molded sections and fine wire are combined to create an image with half-closed eyes, a scanty stylized beard and wicked fangs. He wears a pendant, ear spools and an elaborately feathered and flowered crown. He stands about four inches high and has been variously identified as the dead man among whose grave goods it was found or a representation of the god of fire.
These ten jaguar masks and the thirty eight gold beads that separate them are, unlike most lost wax castings, virtually identical in shape, even to the fine details like bulging eyes, wickedly curving fangs and evenly spaced holes for stringing. They were produced by the ingenious method of coating pre-molded clay and charcoal forms with a thin layer of wax before enclosing the whole in the final mold. The surviving segment measures a little over ten inches and comes from a late post-classic Mayan tomb (c. A.D. 1500).
Ear ornaments, the bigger, the better, seem to have been mandatory attire for gods, kings, priests and nobles. Every painting shows men wearing enormous ear spools and most statues have pierced ears that once held them, but few of those have survived. Even fewer boast the elegant simplicity of this pair of golden circles which have a surprisingly modern feel. Found in a Mixtec tomb, they measure over one-and-a-half inches in diameter and are believed to date from as early as A. D. 1250.
Xipe Totec, as the god of springtime and planting, is shown here wearing the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim to symbolize the regeneration of life from the seemingly inert husk of the seed. The closed eyes and sagging cheeks of the dead face contrast dramatically with the opulence of the tasselled crown, ear spools and lip plug. Considering that the image is less than three inches high, the wealth of fine detail is amazing.
Four intricately worked golden plaques, one above the other, form an ornament that once adorned the chest of a priest or a god/king of the Mixtec. At the top we see two gods playing ball with the grinning skull of the death lord between them. The second tier is the sun disk while the other two are symbols of the moon and the earth, giving the whole an astronomical significance. It is finished off with the usual fringe of tiny bells.
Hardly a thing of beauty by modern standards, this grinning, hollow eyed skull is yet an interesting example of the jeweller’s engineering skill and, perhaps, his macabre sense of humor. The toothy lower jaw is a separate piece, attached by loops to the upper, and so finely balanced that the slightest movement sets it flapping up and down in a ghastly semblance of gibbering conversation. The sweet sound of dangles of tiny jingling bells, one of which is missing, only adds to the horror.
This image of Quetzalcoatl in his aspect of the wind god, Ehecatl, is typical of the elaborate rings for which Mixtec jewellers were justly famous. The large butterfly shaped nose plug gives the open-mouthed face a feline look. The elaborate crown features a moveable, free-swinging tassel guaranteed to give anyone but a god crossed eyes, and the dangling earrings are in the form of, you guessed it, tiny bells. Obviously, such a jewel as this was never intended for everyday use.
Though, as we have seen, small bells adorn most Mixtec jewelry, larger ones are less common. This two-inch example takes the form of Xolotl, the dog faced god, who represents yet another aspect, or alter ego, for Quetzalcoatl. The gracefully swirling head-dress and fine jewelry do little to improve the misshapen face with its twisted mouth and sparse beard. Xolotl was associated with human illness and deformity, which account for the tiny golden tears rolling down his cheeks.
Many nobles, especially those of Central Mexico, pierced their lower lips for wearing plugs in the form of animals, birds or, as in this particularly fine example, serpents. The sinuous curves, scaly head, basilisk eyes and fearsome fangs of the reptile are all faithfully portrayed. A final, frightening touch of realism is added by the forked tongue, which is hinged to flicker back and forth in an uncannily lifelike manner at the movement of the wearer’s lips.