The Gardiner Museum’s Ancient Americas collection is considered to be the foremost in Canada.
Although this is a common theme in Moche religious art, its significance is unknown. Running figures, either messengers or warriors, often are depicted on Moche fine-line bottles. Here the runners traverse an uneven terrain with plants, snail shells and cactus. An octopus-like motif adorns each side of the stirrup spout.
Themes related to liquids and the sustenance of the earth, as well as death, decay and rebirth are evident both in human and plant life, the latter in the form of paired beans painted on the front. The vessel shape itself bears a resemblance to mummy bundles, in which the dead were buried upright in a fetal position wrapped in cloth. Sometimes these vessels were adorned with perishable trimmings made of cloth, feathers, wood or plants.
A snarling jaguar leans forward in a menacing pose. His front legs and tail function as the vessel’s three supports; the jar’s flared opening protrudes from the feline’s back. This vessel’s artistic style represents a transition from the realism of the first centuries CE to the more stylized and elaborately painted styles of later periods.
This elaborately dressed pregnant woman embodies fertility, the sculptor having accentuated her hips, breasts and abdomen. Her body is decorated with tattoos or body painting, her head and loins are wrapped in simple strips of cloth, and she is adorned with ear spools. Such finely crafted female figures were produced in Costa Rica from as early as 100 BCE, the earlier versions characterized by realism and the later iconic ones characterized by abstraction.
Pedestalled plates were often decorated with the image of a mythical being, which combined human and animal physical traits — especially those of felines, serpents, caimans (or alligators) and raptor birds (eagles, falcons, vultures). The ray-like motifs emanating from the figures may represent spiritual power.
Maya writing, in the form of hieroglyphics, is the most complex and beautifully rendered language in the Americas. Major breakthroughs in translation of the glyphs since 1990 have resulted in significant advances in Maya research. Canadian hieroglyphic expert Marc Zender has offered a version of the translation of the text which is written on the rim of this plate: The clay-vessel with the painted face, used to serve venison tamales, was held by (or fashioned at the behest of) The Lineage-head, the Ballplayer and son of the Divine Lord of Uaxactun.
The Mexican hairless dog (xoloitzcuintli) served two crucial functions in Mesoamerica. It was domesticated as a source of meat protein, a role suggested by the fattened condition of many ceramic renderings. It was also believed to guide the dead through the darkness of the underworld to the world beyond.
This enigmatic hollow clay sculpture of a seated baby-like figure defies understanding. It is sexless or androgynous with the naturalistically rendered rounded body and shortened legs of a toddler. In life, the elongated heads resulted from tightly wrapping the cranium during infancy, an aesthetic practice found among many Mesoamerican peoples. This practice may be related to Olmec ideologies of birth and regeneration through shamanic ritual and transformation, an interpretation based on some figures combining human and jaguar characteristics.
Usually created in pairs, these sculptures may depict married couples, whose effigies were placed in tombs as surrogates for the living or repositories for souls of the deceased. Some portray domestic activities, such as the woman carrying a dish on her shoulder. Other finely dressed individuals show symptoms of disease such as leporine (rabbit-like) lips. Yet others, wearing jewellery and elaborate clothes, may belong to the elite. Shamans or ritual specialists carry fans and accoutrements of office. The Ixtlán del Río style uses geometric motifs to represent tattooing or body painting.
The figure’s pose suggests both a dance and a ritual trance. Often the two are related, with dance being integral to the trance-inducing process. The figure wears a long skirt decorated with horizontal stripes, an ornate headdress and body adornments. The black asphalt paint may represent face painting.
The vase depicts the birth of supernatural twins; their birth date and names are recorded in the vertical text. Although the specific identity of these twins remains unknown, they are the progeny of a young woman and Itzamnaj (a god associated with wisdom, divination, esoteric knowledge, and the healing arts). The aged Itzamnaj emerges from the open maw of a serpent whose tail transforms into K'awil, the patron god of Maya kings. One of the most important gods in the pantheon of the Classic Period, Itzamnaj remained dominant until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.