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Jar with Lid

Teotihuacan, Classic, general
200-750 CE
20.96 cm x 18.4 cm (8 1/4 in. x 7 1/4 in.)
Ceramic with stucco

On view


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Cylindrical vase with three rectangular openwork supports and a slightly convex lid with a knob shaped like a topknot. The lid overhangs the edge of the vessel, much like a roofline overhanging the wall of a house. This object, the only lidded Teotihuacan vessel in the Bliss Collection, demonstrates these proportions.

The vessel and lid have designs in black and white, blue-green, and orange-red against a dark red background. Application of designs seems careful and unhurried. This ceramic resembles Teotihuacan murals in formality of the presentation of its designs. The vessel’s exterior bears two repetitions of two designs: a fanged mouth surmounted by a headdress (this motif is also used twice on the vessel’s lid) and a set of two upright crooks atop a horizontal knot.

The fanged mouth is a costumed abstraction, frontal view, consisting of a top panache of green feathers; a middle headdress with a concentric circular element with side extensions of rows of squarish plaques; and a bottom section, the mouth. These motifs are outlined in black. The meaning of this set of motifs is complex. Particular costume elements signified an official role or status in Teotihuacan society. In the case of this frontal motif, the feathers in the panache, from the rare tropical quetzal bird, were imported to Teotihuacan at great cost and used in costumes of the highest authorities. The midsection of the headdress reiterates the message of preciousness and power with its three rows of jade beads. The central element is almost certainly a jade disk inscribed with a feather edge, seemingly a portrait of one of the Bliss Collection jade disks, in this case with a centermost inset possibly representing a polished obsidian mirror.

The lower section of this frontal abstract is a fanged mouth, the upper lip framed by a bigotera (moustache) and the black teeth dramatically staged against a wide bifurcated orange-red tongue, a recurrent set of symbols termed “mouth fanged.” Long associated with the Aztec storm god Tlaloc, its ancestral form is the Teotihuacan Storm God.
This frontal abstraction brings together symbols of preciousness: feathers, jades, mirrors, and the sanctity of storms and rainwater. The other set of symbols is less accessible. The upper pair of crooked figures is similar to those labeled by Langley (1986: 230) as an “aspergillum,” a term used in Western contexts to denote a brush-like device used to sprinkle holy water. In the case of PC.B.063’s aspergilla, the white material is rendered as undifferentiated with black triangular flecks. Almost invisible white lines trace large triangles along the horizontal “knot” of each. The composition of a rounded white form with black flecks and a loose knot suggests a hank of unprocessed cotton.

These black and white aspergilla emerge out of a bundle, a type of rectangle that Von Winning identifies as a “firewood bundle.” Green projections at either end suggest a bundle of feathers or reeds, or a bundle decorated by them. The bow binding the bundle is much like the decoration at the neck of the net jaguars in Tetitla’s Room 12 and is also a common element in Storm God insignia. If the aspergillum design is a hank of cotton, then these motifs are high-status, high-cost goods brought from distant warm regions. Cotton was probably imported into Teotihuacan as woven cloth, but diplomatic and trading parties would have also brought back samples of this precious material in unprocessed form. Combined with long green feathers, secured with a bow knot of a type worn by net jaguars, the set of images conveys the sense of sanctity and preciousness.

The combined suggested meanings of these two sets of images reiterate divinity and power, based on Teotihuacan’s local resources and for¬eign influence. This vessel’s abstract motifs honor the rainfall that watered crops, and they honor the city’s long-distance trade in feathers, jade, and cotton. This capacity in turn was founded on Teotihuacan’s prestige as a source of knowledge, a place where mirrors served as divinatory devices that were memorialized in its monumental architectural façades as well as in abstract motifs, such as those on this vessel. Teotihuacan’s power to intimidate was conveyed by the image of fangs and a serpent’s bifurcated tongue

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. 2-3, cat. 8.

Becker-Donner, Etta 1962 Präkolumbische Malerei. Zeit Und Farbe. 2nd Folge: Frühzeiten Der Malerei; [3]. Brüder Rosenbaum, Wien, Austria. pl. 3.

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. 239, cat. 44, pl. XXXI.

Conides, Cynthia and Warren Barbour 2002 Tocados Dentro Del Paisaje Arquitectónico Y Social En Teotihuacan. In Ideología Y Política a Través De Materiales, Imágenes Y Símbolos: Memoria De La Primera Mesa Redonda De Teotihuacan, María Elena Ruiz Gallut, ed., pp. 411-430. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas; Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City. fig. 1.

Davies, Nigel 1983 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico. Pelican Books. Penguin Books, New York. fig. 7.

Grey, Michael 1978 Pre-Columbian Art. Thames and Hudson, London. pl. 3.

Ishida, Eiichir? 1962 Amerika. Sekai Bijutsu Zensh? ; 24. Kadokawa Shoten, Tokyo. p. 164, fig. 41.

Miller, Mary Ellen 1986 The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. World of Art. Thames and Hudson, London. p. 79, fig. 55.

Sempowski, Martha L. , 1992 Economic and Social Implications of Variations in Mortuary Practices at Teotihuacan. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. p. 40, fig. 6.

Taylor, Dicey 2000 A Chocolate Cup for Eternity in the Road of Awe: The Detriot Cylinder Tripod. Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 74 (1/2). fig. 8.

Willey, Gordon R. 1966 An Introduction to American Archaeology. Prentice-Hall Anthropology Series. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,. vol. I, p. 114, fig. 3.49, top.

Winning, Hasso von 1977 The Old Fire God and His Symbolism at Teotihuacan. Indiana 4:7-61. p. 29, fig. 15a.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, July 1954 to July 1962.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1954.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1954-1962.

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

Feathers | Teotihuacan