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Pair of Earrings

Mixtec, Postclassic, general
900-1520 CE
6.03 cm x 1.91 cm x 0.95 cm (2 3/8 in. x 3/4 in. x 3/8 in.)

On view


Each of these gold ornaments has, as its most prominent motif, a hummingbird head. The hummingbird head unites the three tiers of the design: body at top and, suspended from the bird’s beak, a curving ornament from which dangle three elongated bells. These objects are assumed to have been worn on the ears or near them, probably supported by cloth backings.
The hummingbird’s simplified, downward-facing body is wrought in cast gold false filigree, a design mimicking the use of gold wire and a common feature of Mixtec-style gold pieces. The false filigree’s looping pattern imitates the feathers of the bird’s body, wings, and tail, a form that had been modeled in wax and cast in a single flow of metal. The body is enclosed by a double circle of gold filigree. The hummingbird head emerges from the body out of a collar of looping false filigree feathers and this feather motif covers the bird’s downward-facing, three-dimensional head. The stylized object suspended from its beak possibly represents a butterfly or a butterfly nose ornament turned upside-down.

The bottom tier of this design consists of three bells. The hummingbird’s long beak gives greater play to the bells, enhancing the sound effect. The long beak adds drama to the overall composition by separating the head and body from the lower part of the composition. These features reveal how the artist has used the design elements to advantage.
To the Aztecs, the hummingbird was revered for its association with the Mexica tribal patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, “Hummingbird on the Left” or “Hummingbird to the South,” who oversaw their journey to Tenochtitlan from their mythic homeland, Aztlán. In establishing Tenochtitlan, the Mexica honored Huitzilopochtli with one of the two temples atop the pyramid of the Templo Mayor in the main ritual precinct of Tenochtitlan. Few sculpted images of this deity survive, and in the documentary sources he is often depicted as a priest or impersonator wearing a hummingbird helmet and a costume appropriate to the god.

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. 26, cat. 127.

Berdan, Frances and Frank W. Porter 1989 The Aztecs. Indians of North America. Chelsea House Publishers, New York. p. 68.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p. 20, 49, cat. 90.

Bliss, Robert Woods 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. 248, cat. 98, pl. LIX.

Bliss, Robert Woods 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. 256, cat. 98, pl. LIX.

Burchwood, Katharine Tyler 1972 The Origin and Legacy of Mexican Art. A. S. Barnes, New York. pl. 24.

Fields, Virginia M., John M. D. Pohl and Victoria Lyall 2012 Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. p. 31, 36, 229, cat. 122, fig. 19.

Greenwood, Mrs. Hugh A. (ED.) 1941 Special Exhibit of Latin American Silver, October 14-November 15 1941. Pan American Union, Washington, D.C., p. 1, cat. 25.

Liljevalchs konsthall 1952 Mexikansk Konst Från Forntid Till Nutid: [Utställning] Stockholm 1952, Liljevalchs Konsthall. Katalog; Nr. 201. Liljevalchs konsthall, Stockholm. cat. 665e.

Mason, J. Alden 1958 Pre-Columbian Art (Review Article of the 1957 Catalogue). Archaeology II (2):pp. 123-124. pl. LIX.

McDougal Littell 1998 World Art and Culture: Transparencies. McDougal Littell, Houghton Mifflin Co., Evanston, Ill., AT35.

Musée National d'Art Moderne 1952 Art Mexicain Du Précolombien Á Nos Jours. 2. éd. rev. et corr. ed. Presses artistiques, Paris. cat. 526, pl. 38.

Nicholson, H. B. and Eloise Quiñones Keber 1983 Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., p. 156, cat. 71.

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 1940 An Exhibition of Pre-Columbian Art. January 15 through February 10, Arranged by the Peabody Museum and the William Hayes Fogg Art Museum. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., cat. 230.

Quilter, Jeffrey 2011 The Shining Dawn of American Gold: Metallurgy in Ancient America. In To Capture the Sun: Gold of Ancient Panama, Richard G. Cooke, John W. Hoopes, Jeffrey Quilter and Nicholas J. Saunders, eds., pp. 45-77. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa. p. 62.

Ramsey, James Robert 1975 An Analysis of Mixtec Minor Art, with a Catalogue. Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University, New Orleans, 1975. vol. 2, p. 867, cat. Gso/205.

Ries, Maurice Ruddell 1942 Ancient American Art, 500 B.C.-A.D. 1500; the Catalog of an Exhibit of the Art of the Pre-European Americas, April-June 1942, Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara. cat. 97.

Smith, Michael Ernest 1996 The Aztecs. Peoples of America. Blackwell Publishers, Malden. p. 104, fig. 4.9.

Smith, Michael Ernest 2003 The Aztecs. 2nd ed. The Peoples of America. Blackwell Publishers, Malden. p. 97, fig. 4.10.

Solís Olguín, Felipe R. and Martha Carmona Macías 1995 El Oro Precolombino De México: Colecciones Mixteca Y Azteca. Américo Arte Editores, México.

Sotheby 1937 Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian and South American Antiquities, Native Art. Sotheby, London. cat. 166, pl. III.

Taft Museum 1950 Ancient American Gold and Jade: An Exhibition. Taft Museum, Cincinnati. cat. 191-192.

Wenham, Edward 1937 Spanish-American Silverwork, Part 2. In Apollo, pp. 258-265. vol. 26. Apollo etc., London,. p. 258, fig. 1a.

Willey, Gordon Randolph 1966 An Introduction to American Archaeology. Prentice-Hall Anthropology Series. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., p. 164.

Exhibition History
"An Exhibition of Pre-Columbian Art", Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA, 1/15 - 3/2/1940 (catalogue # 230).

"Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art", Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 5/15 - 9/30/1940.

"Special Exhibit of Latin American Silver", Pan American Union, Washington DC, 10/14 - 11/15/1941 (catalogue # 25).

"Ancient American Art", Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA, April - June 1942; M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, July - August 1942; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR, September - October 1942 (catalogue # 97).

"Art of the Americas", The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH, 11/8/1945 - 1/6/1946.

"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1962.

"Ancient American Gold and Jade", Taft Museum, Cincinnati, OH, 10/6 - 11/19/1950 (catalogue # 191).

"Art méxicain du précolombien à nos jours", Musée National d 'art Moderne, Paris, France, 5/9 - 7/30/1952 (catalogue # 526).

"Mexikansk Konst fran Forntid till Nutid", Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden, 1952 (catalogue 665e).

"Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 9/28/1983 - 4/1/1984.

Acquisition History
One earring:
Formerly in the Mrs. Jean Holland Collection.

Purchased from Sotheby's, London (auction house), by Robert Woods Bliss, June 9, 1937.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1937-1962.

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

The pair:
Purchased from John Wise, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, April 12, 1940.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1940-1962.

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

Birds | Earrings | Mixtecs