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Seated Figure

Mixteca-Puebla, Late Postclassic
1300-1520 CE
6.99 cm x 3.81 cm x 2.22 cm (2 3/4 in. x 1 1/2 in. x 7/8 in.)
diopside jadeite

Not on view


This small, blocky figurine depicts a seated personage with its legs flexed against the torso, arms crossed, and hands placed in front of the knees. The anatomical details and posture were marked only on the anterior surface of the object. On the back and sides, the piece is flat and smooth, except for a pair of small perforations located in the center of the posterior surface. Relatively broad at the base and tapering at the top, the piece has a triangular shape. Facial features, including the eyes, nose, and mouth, are emphasized, creating a slight volume for the eyebrows, lips, and—faintly—the cheeks. The figure’s right arm passes in front of the left one; a line indicating the wrist distinguishes the hand from the forearm. Fingers on both hands are marked by fine lines; the right one has four digits, and the left hand has five. A wide groove underneath the figurine clearly differentiates the legs. Short lines depict toes on bare feet; the right foot has seven toes, and the left foot has five. The figure wears no sumptuary goods or garments except for a headband topped by three vertical stripes (probably feathers) that are framed by two lateral stripes that end in scrolls. The headband has a small disk in the forehead.

The horizontally aligned perforations on the back of the figurine are next to each other and penetrate the surface at slight angles. Both holes, 3 mm in diameter, meet a few millimeters below the surface. These tiny holes must have served to suspend the object, but their location and relative positions make it unlikely that the object served as a pendant. Rather, the figurine may have been strung to a garment or affixed to a supporting device of some kind.

The object belongs to a category of stone figurines commonly referred to as penates, a Spanish word taken directly from Latin meaning “domestic deities worshipped by pagans.” Archaeologists in the 1940s began using this term from Roman archaeology to designate ubiquitous blocky figurines with a prismatic or cuboid form dating to Late Postclassic times that were made of a variety of materials and appeared in varied contexts—mostly nonprimary—and had a wide distribution in southwestern Mesoamerica. Penates vary considerably, mostly in size (they range from 5 to 40 cm), posture, and degree to which anatomical features and garments are represented. Most depict humans or humans wearing masks, the face of the Rain God being recurrent. Only a few have been found in primary contexts, including 55 examples offered in dedicatory caches associated with the Templo Mayor at Mexico-Tenochtitlan, but these differ from other penates in their high level of craftsmanship and larger size.

Penates are frequently sculpted as seated with crossed arms, seeming to mimic the way dead individuals were arranged before being wrapped as mortuary bundles, publicly displayed during funerals, and eventually placed in tombs or caves. Hence they may be miniature rep¬resentations of ancestors. Records of inquisitorial idolatry trials conducted by Spanish missionaries against native peoples substantiate that small stone figures, referred to as “idols,” formed an integral component of domestic and public rituals aimed at invoking dead ancestors in the face of life crises.

Ancestors and the living could personify dei¬ties or take the attributes of gods, which could account for additional variability in stone figurines. The miniature representation of ancestors in stone had deeper historical roots in southwestern Mesoamerica, but earlier versions were manu¬factured in very different styles.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 25, cat. 122.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p. 12, 72, cat. 30.

Bliss, Robert W. 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 247, cat. 96, pl. LVIII.

Bliss, Robert W. 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p. 255, cat. 96, pl. LVIII.

Ramsey, James Robert 1975 An Analysis of Mixtec Minor Art, with a Catalogue. Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University, New Orleans, 1975. vol. 2, p. 897, cat. Jf/263.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, April 1947 to July 1949 and November 1952 to July 1962

Acquisition History
Purchased from Charles L. Morley, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1947.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1947-1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Feathers | Mixtecs