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Axe God Pendant

Guanacaste-Nicoya, Period IV
500 BCE-500 CE
21.7 x 6.67 x 2.22 cm (8 9/16 x 2 5/8 x 7/8 in.)

On view


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Jadeite, prized for its rich green color, hardness, and lustrous surface, was the favored material for prestige objects before metallurgy spread throughout the Intermediate Area during the first millennium of the Common Era. Jadeite is a difficult material to work and was closely associated with elite culture.

One of the typical and most valued ornaments in Costa Rican jade-carving tradition is known by scholars as the axe-god. Axe-god is a general term to describe the depiction of a human, an animal, or a composite figure surmounting a piece of precious stone carved in the shape of a celt or axe. The representation can range from naturalistic to a very stylized rendering. Despite having derived from an agricultural tool, these axe-shaped figures -due to the type of material, the delicate symbolic carving, and the fact that they are transversally pierced for suspension- were not actual working tools but pieces of jewelry which elevate the status of the person who wore them.

Using half a celt as a base, the back side is flattened while the front is convex, this larger than average piece depicts an anthropomorphic axe-god wearing an animal headdress. The representation of both human and animal in this piece have similarities like the V-shaped chin, the perforated corners of the mouth, and the position of the legs and hands, represented on the front of the body. The object has a transverse perforation at the height of the human’s ear, allowing it to display over the chest.

Although most axe-god figures in museums and private collections are reported to be from the Guanacaste-Nicoya area, there are also similar objects from the Caribbean Watershed and the Central Pacific Area of Costa Rica.

Alcina Franch, José 1979 Die Kunst Des Alten Amerika. Grosse Epochen Der Weltkunst. Ars Antiqua. Herder, Freiburg. fig. 455.

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. 33, cat. 162.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian institution, Washington, D.C., p. 9, 66, cat. 4.

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. 261, cat. 146, pl. XCI.

Christensen, Erwin Ottomar 1955 Primitive Art. Bonanza Books, New York. p. 210, 246, fig. 205.

Grey, Michael 1978 Pre-Columbian Art. Thames and Hudson, London. pl. 36.

Grey, Michael 1978 Pre-Columbian Art. St. Martin's Press, New York. pl. 36.

Ishida, Eiichir 1962 Amerika. Sekai Bijutsu Zensh?; 24. Kadokawa Shoten, Tokyo. pl. 94.

Saunders, Nicholas J. 2011 Shimmering Worlds: Brilliance, Power, and Gold in Pre-Columbian Panama. In To Capture the Sun: Gold of Ancient Panama, Richard G. Cooke, John W. Hoopes, Jeffrey Quilter and Nicholas J. Saunders, eds., pp. 78-113. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa. p. 99.

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

Acquisition History
Formerly in the collection of Felix Wiss, San Jose, Costa Rica.

Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, December 18,1943

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1943-1962.

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

Anthropomorphic | Axe god | Guanacaste-Nicoya | Pendant