Art of the Ancient Americas

The Gallery’s collection of art from the ancient Americas comprises approximately 1,500 objects, crossing cultural boundaries from the Olmec to the Inca and spanning more than 2,500 years. Its strength lies in the art of the Maya and their predecessors. The collection also includes strong representative holdings from Costa Rica, West Mexico, and the Andean regions.
Brazier with deity combining elements of Tlaloc and Maize God
Gold Crown
Ocarina, probably a Kinkajou
Standing Male
Seated Female with a Child
Finial with bird-helmeted figure

About Art of the Ancient Americas

The Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of art of the ancient Americas explores the richness of art from ancient Mesoamerica to the Central Andes, and spans more than 2,500 years from the Olmec culture to the Contact-era Aztec and Inca Empires. Inspired by Yale professor and pioneering art historian George Kubler, the Gallery began collecting ancient American art in the 1950s, with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Fred Olsen. The Olsen collection provided a representative base of Mesoamerican art and established the strength of the collection in the art of the Maya and the cultures of West Mexico, including outstanding Maya ceramic figurines from Jaina Island and striking sculptures and house models from West Mexico. The collection has grown, fostered by Mary Miller, the Sterling Professor of Art and Senior Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, with a special focus on the Maya and the Mesoamerican ballgame, including a rare ceramic model of a ballcourt, figures of ballplayers, and ballgame paraphernalia. Recent acquisitions include a portrait of an elite Maya woman rendered in painted stucco, notable Olmec and early Maya pieces, and major donations of antiquities from Costa Rica and the Central Andes. Several important objects from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, formerly curated by renowned Mesoamericanist and Yale professor Michael D. Coe, the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, are currently on view in the Cornelia Cogswell Rossi Foundation Gallery of Art of the Ancient Americas.

The Mesoamerican collection encompasses the region’s major artistic traditions, including the Aztec, Gulf Coast, Maya, Mixtec, Olmec, Teotihuacan, West Mexico, and Zapotec. Mesoamerican artists represented ancestors, animals, deities, and rulers in a variety of materials, including bone, ceramic, shell, stone, and stucco. Incense burners served as a vital means of contacting deities and ancestors through offerings of aromatic resins, and vibrantly painted ceramic vessels, used for feasting and drinking cacao, show mythological scenes and offer glimpses into courtly life and scribal traditions. The Gallery’s collection of jades showcases the skill with which Olmec and Maya carvers rendered hard precious stones into graceful objects without the benefit of metal tools. Other highlights include a rare imperial Aztec altar that portrays the rhythmic creation and destruction of the cosmos, a monumental portrayal of a fanged and goggle-eyed rain god from the Gulf Coast, and an exceptional head of Xochipilli-Macuilxochitl, the Aztec god of games, music, and drunkenness.

Objects from the diverse traditions of the Central Andes, such as the Chavín, Inca, Lambayeque, Moche, Nasca, Paracas, and Wari, enrich the display. In contrast to the humid tropical climate of Mesoamerica, the extreme dryness of the Andean coast favored the preservation of beautiful and elaborate textiles of unparalleled quality. Inca priests and rulers left intricate gold and silver figures, originally clothed in miniature textiles, on the snow-capped summits of the Andean cordillera as offerings to gods and ancestors. Coastal Nasca and Moche peoples gave offerings of painted and sculptural ceramic vessels, which were prized for their inventiveness and detail. Gold, ceramic, and wooden vessels for drinking and pouring offerings of maize beer solidified bonds among the living and ultimately embellished royal tombs. Among the many striking objects on display are a Lambayeque gold crown, exquisite miniature textiles, and a pair of lifelike Moche portrait vessels.

Note from the Curator

Although ancient textiles rarely survived in the humid, tropical climate of eastern Mesoamerica, the attention given to the depiction of lavish garments in other media, such as the famed murals of Bonampak, suggests that weaving was considered to be one of the most highly valued art forms among the ancient Maya. This exceptional figure of a weaver seated at her back-strap loom, one of only five known examples of this subject, reveals much about the otherwise ephemeral Classic Maya art of weaving. The figure embodies the Classic Maya feminine ideal, in terms of both her beauty and her skill at the loom. Her elegantly elongated head and partially preserved jade necklace denote elevated status, as precious jewels and cranial modification were reserved for the Maya elite. Two macaws with traces of red pigment seek shelter in the shade of her loom. This seemingly minor artistic embellishment may suggest an additional layer of meaning: some surviving myths tell of a lunar goddess, who, while weaving, was seduced by a deity in the guise of a bird. In Mesoamerica, weaving is considered to be far more than a quotidian activity; rather, it is often symbolically related to human procreation and, in some traditions, the creation and maintenance of the cosmos itself. Like many other ceramic figures from the island of Jaina, this object functions as more than a silent and static representation of a person or deity; it doubles as a whistle when air is blown into the slit on the figure’s right shoulder.

Andrew D. Turner

Postdoctoral Associate

with Susan B. Matheson

The Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art

Seated Female Weaver, Mexico, probably Campeche, Jaina Island, Maya, A.D. 600–900. Ceramic with pigment. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Justin Kerr in memory of Barbara Kerr, 2016

Meet the Curators

Susan B. Matheson

Susan B. Matheson, the Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art, oversees the collections of art from the ancient Mediterranean and ancient Americas. She has organized exhibitions on Greek vases, Dura-Europos, and Neoclassical and Gothic Revival Art, and she was cocurator of the exhibition I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome in 1996. Her books include Polygnotos and Vase-Painting in Classical Athens, volumes on Yale’s Athenian vases and ancient glass, and Art for Yale: A History of the Yale University Art Gallery. She teaches courses on Athenian vase painting for the departments of Classics and the History of Art at Yale.

susan.matheson@yale.edu

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Lisa R. Brody

Lisa R. Brody, Associate Curator of Ancient Art, received her B.A. from Yale and her Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York Univeristy. She has excavated around the Mediterranean and on Yale’s campus, and her publications include Aphrodisias III: The Aphrodite of Aphrodisias. In 2011 she co-curated Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, which was on view at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College and Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, and she coedited the accompanying book. She most recently cocurated Roman in the Provinces: Art on the Periphery of Empire and coedited the exhibition catalogue.

lisa.brody@yale.edu

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Further Reading

Kubler, George, ed. Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico and Central America. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1986.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec, rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Stone-Miller, Rebecca. Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Whittington, E. Michael. The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame, exh. cat. Charlotte, N.C.: Mint Museum of Art, 2001.

Young-Sanchez, Margaret, et al. Nature and Spirit: Ancient Costa Rican Treasures in the Mayer Collection at the Denver Art Museum. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2010.

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Art of the Ancient Americas
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Art of the Ancient Americas
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Art of the Ancient Americas