Mantle ("The Paracas Textile")
Arts of the Americas
This extraordinarily complex mantle, or cloak, is one of the most renowned Andean textiles in the world. It was most likely used as a ceremonial object. The ninety figures decorating the border, created by needle knitting, have been interpreted as a microcosm of life on Peru’s South Coast two thousand years ago, with a particular focus on agriculture. Many of the images illustrate native flora and fauna as well as cultivated plants. Costumed figures may represent humans impersonating gods and acting as intermediaries between the real and supernatural worlds. Severed human trophy heads are shown as germinating seeds, suggesting the practice of ritual sacrifice and the interconnected cycles of birth and death.
Este extraordinariamente complejo manto, o capa, es uno de los textiles andinos más conocidos en el mundo. Fue usado probablemente como objeto ceremonial. Las noventa figuras que decoran el borde, tejidas con aguja, han sido interpretadas como el microcosmos de la vida en la Costa Sur del Perú de hace dos mil años, con foco particular en la agricultura. Muchas de las imágenes ilustran flora y fauna nativa, así como plantas cultivadas. Figuras disfrazadas pueden representar humanos imitando a dioses y actuando como intermediarios entre los mundos real y sobrenatural. Cabezas trofeo se muestran como semillas germinando, sugiriendo la práctica de sacrificio ritual y los ciclos interconectados de nacimiento y muerte.
Cotton, camelid fiber
Early Intermediate Period
24 5/8 × 58 11/16 in. (62.5 × 149 cm)
support: 67 1/4 x 33 1/4 in. (170.8 x 84.5 cm)
This item is not on view
John Thomas Underwood Memorial Fund
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Nazca. Mantle ("The Paracas Textile"), 100-300 C.E. Cotton, camelid fiber, 24 5/8 × 58 11/16 in. (62.5 × 149 cm). Brooklyn Museum, John Thomas Underwood Memorial Fund, 38.121 (Photo: , NK8839.1_B79_brochure_front_38.121_IMLS.jpg)
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Mantle with ninety individual, colorful figures decorating the border. The interior cloth is simple, fragmented, and possibly of an earlier date. Cross-loop stitch flowers join the border to the central cloth.
Although the mantle was found at the Paracas Necropolis and has been known as "The Paracas Textile" since it was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in 1938, the cross-knit looping of the border figures is a typical Nasca 2 technique. The mantle is therefore now considered to be the work of Nasca artists, who were contemporaneous with the Paracas people. Some scholars also believe that the central cloth dates from an earlier period and may have come from the Ica Valley where objects with similar "Oculate Being" imagery have been found.
The textile is about two thousand years old. That it survived over time is due to the dry desert climate of the South Coast of Peru where it was discovered. In spite of its fragile condition, it is one of the most important textiles in the world because of its complexity and mysterious imagery. Its fragile nature demands low levels of light, an environment free from vibrations, and a case to protect it from dust and moisture.
Excerpted information from a brochure published by the Brooklyn Museum in 1991:
Ninety separate figures stand around the border as if in a formal procession. About thirty figures are unique; others fall into groups that share similar costumes, coloring, body postures, and positions. No single figure stands out clearly from the rest, and no overall sequence has yet been deciphered. The back of the border is a mirror image of the front, except for three figures that have a front and a back. All of the figures are represented from multiple viewpoints and each individual body part is treated separately in a standardized way: faces are always seen full-face, feet in profile, and so on.
The designs in both the center and border of the textile are organized around the lines of an imaginary cross passing through the center. It divides the faces in the central cloth into two groups, and the border figures into four, each of which point their feet in a different direction.
Some figures seem to be mythological and have unnatural characteristics such as appendages sometimes called "streamers" or "signifiers," which usually extend from mouths or clothing. Streamers do not correspond to a known object and may represent some abstract force of energy.
Some human figures wear very elaborate costumes. As in many societies, costumed priests may have acted as interpreters and mediators between the natural and supernatural worlds. The costumed figures may also represent an intermediate stage in the transformation from real living person to spirit. Since Paracas and Nasca textiles were used as funeral wrappings, it would be appropriate for their designs to reflect such a transformation. Three of the figures are thought to be women because of the longer dress-type clothing; the head is bent backwards and the arms are raised. In keeping with the agricultural theme of the border, two types of plants sprout from these three female figures.
Other border figures hold or display disembodied heads and small doll-like objects that scholars call "trophy heads" and "effigy figures." These seem to be related to ritual sacrifices connected with a religious cult that spread through the South Coast at this time. Bodiless heads and sacrificial victims are found in burials, and images of sacrifice occur throughout Paracas and Nasca art. Trophy heads on the border often appear to germinate like seeds, sprouting plants and animals, suggesting interconnected cycles of birth and death.
About one-third of the border figures have some type of feline motif. The larger "Pampas cat" portrayed is a small wild cat called Felis colocolo, which is still found in the South Coast area.
The regalia portrayed correspond to rich, beautifully crafted items known from Paracas mummy bundles. Forehead ornaments, hair bangles, and mouth masks such as those shown were made from thin sheets of gold.
Llamas were the only beasts of burden used in the Andes in pre-Columbian times. They carried products between the vastly different ecological zones at different altitudes. The llamas portrayed (although one is much deteriorated) each carry a leafy branch with fruit; their backs are decorated with beans, flowers, a chili pepper, and other vegetables. Llamas continue to have both practical and symbolic importance in the Andes.
Three border figures wear what appears to be a fox skin. These skins have been found in many mummy bundles. In Inca times (1470-1532) fox skins were a special badge worn by men who had specific community duties related to agriculture. Since these figures all wear a headdress decorated with a leafy branch, they may have held a similar office.
There are distinctions between figures that might indicate the presence of more than one artist. Two of the fox-skin wearers are almost identical: but a third is slightly larger and different in its detailing.
One of the only three figures on the border with a front and a back appears in a costume with a bird wing worn over one shoulder. One of the Paracas mummy bundles included just such a costume -- a feathered, wing-like cape.
The central figure in a trio found at one end of the textile has a long streamer extending from his mouth and ending in a cat; another mouth streamer has been lost. The borders on his ankle-length garment and all of his streamers have intricate repeating motifs that are similar to the embroidered designs found on numerous Paracas Necropolis textiles. Many of the tongue streamers on the border are decorated with the same colors, patterns, or edgings as those that appear on garments. This may suggest some correspondence between textiles and language. Textiles still reflect a medium of communication in the Andes. Family and village designs on textiles are representative of social identity and help maintain inherited information, connecting past, present, and future generations.
Agriculture was well established on the South Coast by Paracas and Nasca times and a wide variety of plants are represented in the border design, including root vegetables, fruits, beans, and yucca and flowering species. Some scholars feel this textile is a type of calendar, especially because so many different types of flora and fauna are represented, but none have definitively been able to decode the imagery.
Comments by Isabel Iriarte, Curator of Collections, Archaeological Textiles, Museo Ethografico "Juan B. Ambrosetti," University of Buenos Aires, March, 2004:
The figure of a "woman" appears three times, figure number 88 on the short end, number 73, and also as number 67. Each character by her side is different. She is carrying what seems to be, according to the limpness of the body, a dead person, however, the figure holds a tumi. This is thought to be a woman because of the longer dress-type of clothing she is wearing; her head is bent backwards and her arms are raised.
From "Textiles of ancient Peru and their techniques" by Raoul d'Harcourt, Seattle: U. of Washington Press, 1962 :
In keeping with the agricultural theme of the border, two types of plants sprout from the figure. On figure 88 one can see the tuber, and on each of the three figures it is possible to discern the plant extending down the side of the figure, possibly a camote or sweet potato plant.
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