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Obsidian Mirror or Portable Altar

Aztec / Colonial, Late Postclassic
31.5 cm x 28.5 cm x 2.8 cm (12 3/8 in. x 11 1/4 in. x 1 1/8 in.)
Obsidian and gilded wood

On view


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A dark obsidian plaque is set in a gilded wood frame decorated with carved leaves and flowers. In medieval and sixteenth-century Europe, rectangular objects such as this one were used as portable altars. The smooth rectangular stone slab, known as an ara, was the holiest part of the altar, where the chalice and other liturgical objects were set during the celebration of the mass. Aras symbolically represented Christ. Such portable altars were particularly popular in New Spain, where the constant travels of mendicant friars and the construction of new and open chapels made portable liturgical objects a necessity. After the celebration of the mass, objects and altar could be secured.

The back of this ara is carved with the emblem of the Franciscan order in New Spain, a shield with five wounds. These wounds allude to the wounds of Christ and to the five stigmata of Saint Francis. The blood is profuse and highly stylized, and a tau cross emerges from the central wound. Possibly carved by an indigenous artist, the image may carry additional layers of meaning, including a direct visual reference to blood and sacrifice, two concepts deeply rooted in Aztec religious beliefs. The five wounds create a quincunx, an abstracted representation of the Aztec universe, showing the center, where human sacrifices are performed. The use of obsidian for the ara might also be significant, in that obsidian was the stone of choice for Aztec sacrificial knives and weaponry. In Aztec Mexico, shiny obsidian disks were also used as mirrors. Their reflective properties were thought to facilitate communication with gods and ancestors and were used for divination. Black mirrors were associated specifically with the god Tezcatlipoca (see PC.B.072), patron of rulers and identified as the inventor of human sacrifice. It is not clear whether Spanish friars were aware of the multiple meanings of this object. Where they saw a Christian altar, the people they sought to convert may have seen something quite different.

Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Published by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 188-9.

Eggebrecht, Arne (ED.) 1986 Glanz Und Untergang Des Alten Mexico: Die Azteken Und Ihre Vorläufer: Ausstellung. P. von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein. vol. 2, cat. 354.

Hvidtfeldt, Arild 1987 Mexicos Kunst -- Før Spanierne Kom. Louisiana-Revy 28, Humlebæk., p. 83, cat. 298.

Saunders, Nicholas J. 2002 Mirror or Portable Altar. In Aztecs, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and Felipe R. Solís Olguín, eds., pp. 517. Royal Academy of Arts, London. p. 354, 484, cat. 335.

Saunders, Nicholas J. 2003 Mirror or Portable Altar. In Azteken, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and Felipe R. Solís Olguín, eds., pp. 517. DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, Köln. p. 354, 485, cat. 335.

Saunders, Nicholas J. 2004 Mirror or Portable Altar. In The Aztec Empire: Catalogue of the Exhibition, Felipe R. Solís Olguín, ed., pp. 80. Guggenheim Museum Publications, New York, N.Y., p. 77, cat. 362.

Solís Olguín, Felipe R. 2004 The Aztec Empire. Guggenheim Museum Publications, New York. p. 350, 369, cat. 198.

Staff, Craig G. 2015 Monochrome: Darkness and Light in Contemporary Art. I.B. Tauris, New York. pl. 8.

Exhibition History
"Die Azteken und ihre Vorlaufer: Glanz und Untergang des Alten Mexico", Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany (catalogue 354), 6/30 - 11/9/1986; Ausstellungsleitung Haus derKunst, Munich, Germany, 12/6/1986 - 3/6/1987; Ober'sterreichisches Landesmuseum, Linz, Austria 4/3 - 8/2/1987; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, 8/15 - 11/30/1987; Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Historie, Brussels, Belgium, 12/1/1987 - 3/30/1988; National Archaeology Museum, Athens, Gerece, 5/16 - 7/21/1988; Société du Palais de la Civilisation, Montreal, Canada, 7/30 - 10/30/1988.

"Aztecs", Royal Academy of Arts, London, England, 9/12/2002 - 4/11/2003; Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany, 5/11 - 8/3/2003; Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn, Germany, 9/26/2003 - 1/11/2004.

"The Aztec Empire", Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, 10/14/2004 - 2/13/2005.

"Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World", Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, 11/06/2011 - 01/29/2012

"75 Years/75 Objects", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 09/08/2015 - 05/22/2016

Acquisition History
Purchased at a flea market in Madrid, Spain, by Robert Woods Bliss, 1961.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1961-1962.

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

Aztecs | Mirrors