This fierce-looking, animated, multilayered figure is known as the Staff God, the principal deity of the Chavín cult. It is represented on the most sacred stone sculptures at the important ceremonial site of Chavín de Huántar, and it appears in various guises on precious portable objects as well. The influence of this image was profound on the art and ideology of subsequent cultures throughout the Andes.
The feline figure stands on a stool or pedestal, facing frontward and holding two staffs. It has large square eyes, an angular mouth with two sets of fangs, bilobed ears, and a striped torso. It wears a breechcloth, depicted between its legs, which some scholars have interpreted as a sign of its male gender. It is surrounded by long snakes that emerge out of its head, midriff and feet—as if substituting for hair, a belt, and anklets or footwear. The other objects in the scene are animated as well. The stool or pedestal at the bottom of the image is decorated with a pair of agnathic faces, and the feline’s two staffs are topped by fanged faces at the level of its neck. The representation of snakes and faces in lieu of certain parts of the image is a convention comparable to our usage of metaphors. This embellishes the image, perhaps giving it additional meaning. Also significant is the creation of an image that can be “read” in an alternative way when it is turned upside down. The feline’s mouth then becomes part of a new face that incorporates the old figure’s eyes and nose, and the snake heads at its waist become the eyes for a monstrous face on its inverted torso.
Alva, Walter L. 1992 Orfebrería Del Formativo. In Oro Del Antiguo Perú, José Antonio de Lavalle, ed., pp. 17-118. 1. ed. Colección Arte Y Tesoros Del Perú. Banco de Credito del Perú, Lima. p. 56-57, pl. 43.
Anton, Ferdinand 1962 Alt-Peru Und Seine Kunst. Seeman, Leipzig. pl. 182.
Anton, Ferdinand 1972 The Art of Ancient Peru. Putnam, New York. pl. 5.
Boone, Elizabeth Hill (ED.) 1996 Andean Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 1. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. vol. 1, p. 47-52, pl. 1.
Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 282-283.
Collier, Donald 1959 Indian Art of the Americas. Chicago Natural History Museum, Chicago. fig. 65.
Cordy-Collins, Alana 1979 Cotton and the Staff-God: Analysis of an Ancient Chavín Textile. In The Junius B. Bird Pre-Columbian Textile Conference, May 19th and 20th, 1973, Junius Bouton Bird, Ann P. Rowe, Elizabeth P. Benson and Anne-Louise Schaffer, eds. The Textile Museum; Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 58.
Fash, William Leonard and Mary E. Lyons 2005 The Ancient American World. The World in Ancient Times. Oxford University Press, New York. p. 126.
Fux, Peter (ED.) 2013 Chavin: Peru's Enigmatic Temple in the Andes. Scheidegger & Spiess; Museum Rietberg, Zurich. p. 235, cat. 17.
Fux, Peter (ED.) 2015 Chavín. Primera edición. ed. Museo de Arte de Lima, Lima. p. 237, cat. 17.
Lothrop, Samuel K. 1941 Gold Ornaments of Chavin Style from Chongoyape, Peru. American Antiquity 6 (3):250-262. p. 254, 258, pl. XVIIIa.
Quilter, Jeffrey 2005 Treasures of the Andes: The Glories of Inca and Pre-Columbian South America. Duncan Baird, London. p. 48.
"Indian Art of the Americas", The Field Museum, Chicago, August - September 1959 (catalogue # 65).
"Chavìn: Peru's Mysterious Temple in the Andes", Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland, 11/23/2012 - 3/10/2013.
Purchased from the Textile Museum, Washington DC, by Dumbarton Oaks, 1979.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.