Carved from the valve of a Spondylus shell, this small pendant depicts the visage of a priest or deity impersonator wearing the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim over his ‘living’ face. This image impersonates the Aztec god Xipe Totec, patron deity of goldsmiths. During his annual festivities, known as tlacaxipehualiztli (Flaying of Men), war captives were sacrificed by dart-throwing (tlacacaliztli) or in gladiatory combats (tlahuahuanaliztli). Sacrificial victims were flayed, and their skin was worn by individuals to impersonate Xipe Totec. Over the course of several days, the skin of the victims worn by ritual penitents rotted and disintegrated, like the hull of a germinating seed. Xipe Totec festivities have been traditionally associated with warfare, fertility, the renewal of life, and the agricultural cycle.
In this delicate representation, Xipe Totec has two locks of hair falling over his temples and his head is surrounded by a ruff of feathers. Large ear spools flank his face, and he wears an elaborate feather headdress with a band bearing three circular symbols for turquoise or preciousness. Carved into the reverse of the pendant is a pleated paper rosette together with two conical elements characteristic of fertility deities. This ornament, known as yopitzontl, typically adorns the back of Xipe Totec or his rattle-staff (chicahuaztli). Two holes at the back of the effigy facilitate attachment and suggest that it could be worn as a pendant.
Spondylus shell, also known as the thorny oyster, was a valued and precious material in both the Andes and Mesoamerica. Because the mollusk was found in the deep waters of the Pacific and only specialized divers were able to retrieve it, its shell became a rare and expensive elite material. The artist who made this piece probably chose to use this rose colored bivalve for its red and white colors traditionally associated with the body paint of Xipe Totec.
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. 24, cat. 112.
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. 243, cat. 59, pl. XLVI.
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. 251, cat. 59, pl. XLVI.
Bray, Warwick 1968 Everyday Life of the Aztecs. Batsford/Putnam, London & New York. p. 135, fig. 58.
Bray, Warwick 1991 Everyday Life of the Aztecs. Peter Bedrick Books, New York. p. 135, fig. 58.
Bray, Warwick and Eva Wilson 1987 Everyday Life of the Aztecs. Dorset Press, New York. p. 135, fig. 58.
Bühl, Gudrun 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Published by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 194-5.
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. 56, 230, cat. 149.
Kelemen, Pál 1943 Medieval American Art: A Survey in Two Volumes. 2 vols. Macmillan, New York. p. 346-347, pl. 282b.
Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo and Felipe R. Solís Olguín 2002 Aztecs. Royal Academy of Arts, London. p. 337, 478, cat. 314, catalogue entry by Loa Traxler.
Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo and Felipe R. Solís Olguín 2003 Azteken. DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, Köln. p. 337, 479, cat. 314, catalogue entry by Loa Traxler.
Nicholson, H. B. and Eloise Quiñones Keber 1983 Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., p. 109, cat. 37.
Solís Olguín, Felipe R. 2004 The Aztec Empire: Catalogue of the Exhibition. Guggenheim Museum Publications, New York. p. 51, cat. 224, catalogue entry by Loa Traxler.
Velazquez Castro, Adrian, Emiliano Ricardo Melgar Tisoc and Luis Gomez Gastelum 2011 Moluscos Arqueologicos De America. Coleccion Estudios Del Hombre ;. Universidad de Guadalajara, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. cover.
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, November 1952 to July 1962.
"Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 9/28/1983 - 4/1/1984.
"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; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain 3/15/ - 9/4/2005.
Formerly in the collection of Joseph Brummer
Purchased from Ernest Brummer, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, June 17, 1947.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1947-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.