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Life-Death Figure

Arts of the Americas

On View: Arts of the Americas Galleries, 5th Floor
This sculpture of a man carrying a human skeleton on his back exemplifies the dualism of life and death that permeates Huastec and Mexica (Aztec) art. Representing life, the human figure is the Aztec wind god, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who created humankind and is identifiable by his J-shaped ear pendants. Representing death, the skeletal figure with a protruding heart wears a collar and skirt decorated with a half-circle motif that was associated with the sun and the planet Venus. Venus, called 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 sculpture’s arms and legs include ears of corn, which, like the sun and Venus imagery, are related to agriculture, fertility, life, and death.


Esta escultura de un hombre llevando un esqueleto humano a sus espaldas ejemplifica el dualismo de la vida y muerte que abunda en el arte Huasteca y Mexica (Azteca). Representando a la vida, la figura humana es el dios Azteca del viento, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, quien creó a la humanidad y se identifica por sus aretes en forma de “J.” Representando a la muerte, la figura esquelética de corazón sobresaliente lleva un collar y falda decorados con un motivo semicircular que se asociaba al sol y al planeta Venus. Venus, llamado la estrella de la mañana, era otro dios importante, quien se creía jalaba el sol a través del cielo y hacia el inframundo. Diseños elaborados cubriendo densamente los brazos y piernas de la escultura incluyen mazorcas, cuya imaginería, al igual que la del sol y Venus, está asociada a la agricultura, fertilidad, vida y muerte.
CULTURE Huastec
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
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is on view in Arts of the Americas Galleries, 5th Floor
ACCESSION NUMBER 37.2897PA
CREDIT LINE Frank Sherman Benson Fund and the Henry L. Batterman Fund
RIGHTS STATEMENT Creative Commons-BY
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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
IMAGE overall, 37.2897PA_death_reference_SL1.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph
"CUR" at the beginning of an image file name means that the image was created by a curatorial staff member. These study images may be digital point-and-shoot photographs, when we don\'t yet have high-quality studio photography, or they may be scans of older negatives, slides, or photographic prints, providing historical documentation of the object.
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. Figure is in good condition with overall signs of surface wear. Label copy: This sculpture exemplifies the dualism permeating Huastec and Aztec art. On one side, a life-size male figure wears a conical hat, large ear spools, and a skirt tied around his waist. Densely patterned designs, including ears of corn and feline heads cover the upper arms, hands, abdomen and legs - most likely representations of tattooing. The recessed eyes and deep depressions of the ear spools probably held inlays. The deep depression in the navel, the symbolic heart of the figure, was probably used for ritual offerings. The fingers of the raised right hand curl around an opening in which a staff or banner would have been inserted. The other side of the sculpture is dominated by a dramatic skeletal figure wearing a conical hat adorned with feathers and having feet that end in claws. The piece has been interpreted either as a cult statue to the god Quetzalcoatl or as a representation of a Huastec ruler.
RECORD COMPLETENESS Best (91%)
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