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Life-Death Figure

Arts of the Americas

This figure carrying a human skeleton on its back illustrates the interplay between the spiritual and natural worlds in Huastec culture. The primary figure is the wind god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who created humankind and is identifiable by his J-shaped ear pendants. The skeletal figure with a protruding heart represents death and wears a collar and a skirt decorated with semicircular motifs that were associated with the sun and the planet Venus. Venus, the morning star, was another important god, thought to pull the sun across the sky and down into the underworld. Densely patterned designs on the primary figure’s arms and legs include ears of corn, which, like the other imagery, are symbolically related to agriculture, fertility, life, and death.
MEDIUM Sandstone, traces of pigment
DATES 900–1250
DIMENSIONS 62 3/8 x 26 x 11 1/2 in. (158.4 x 66 x 29.2 cm)  (show scale)
COLLECTIONS Arts of the Americas
CREDIT LINE Frank Sherman Benson Fund and the Henry L. Batterman Fund
PROVENANCE Prior to 1844, provenance not yet documented, possibly from Chilituju near San Vicente Tancuayalab, Mexico; by 1844, acquired by Ann McClarmonde Chase of Tampico, Mexico; 1844, acquired from Ann McClarmonde Chase by Benjamin Moore Norman of New Orleans, LA; 1844, gift of Benjamin Moore Norman to the New-York Historical Society, New York, NY; 1950, purchased from the New-York Historical Society by the Brooklyn Museum.
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CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION Large free-standing figure of a man on a thin rectangular base. Half circle headdress with incised decoration; conical hat fitting down into a broad headband. Face carefully modeled with decoration running from each eye across cheek. Ear plugs have strap-like pendants that hang down over shoulders. Recessed eyes and deep depressions of the ear spools probably held inlays. Below neck is breast ornament. Broad skirt hangs down to knees with incised textile designs. Densely patterned designs covering the upper arms, hands, abdomen and legs include ears of corn and feline heads and most likely represent tattooing. Elbows bent. Right hand on breast with fingers curling around empty socket, in which a banner or staff may have been inserted. The left hand rests against belt. Depression at the navel was probably used for ritual offerings. Other side of piece is a standing skeletal figure wearing a conical hat adorned with feathers. Arms are full flesh. Incised tattoo designs are on arms and legs. The feet end in claws. Belt and skirt have incised decoration. Condition: good with overall signs of surface wear.
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
CAPTION Huastec. Life-Death Figure, 900–1250. Sandstone, traces of pigment, 62 3/8 x 26 x 11 1/2 in. (158.4 x 66 x 29.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Frank Sherman Benson Fund and the Henry L. Batterman Fund, 37.2897PA. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: , 37.2897PA_front_PS11.jpg)
IMAGE front, 37.2897PA_front_PS11.jpg., 2019
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