A comprehensive gathering of Mesoamerican art objects reveals how a religious myth expressed itself—and perpetuated itself—through trade.
This article originally appeared in the June issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Culture, Commerce & Quetzalcoatl”.
This being the year 2012, it was probably inevitable that a major museum would devote a major show to Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican hero-deity whose name has become inseparably linked with the “Mayan apocalypse” that will supposedly overtake us this December 21. According to the ancient Mesoamerican calendar, a world-historic cycle with metaphysical implications will come to an end on that day, and another one will begin, but whether the event will be marked by doom or delight is unclear.
One thing is clear, though: Not only in New Age popular culture but in Mexican and Central American traditional culture and among certain seminal artistic figures of modernism, the idea of a “return of Quetzalcoatl” has remained powerfully attractive. “Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico,” a comprehensive and scholarly exhibition on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through July 1 (after which it will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art, July 29 through November 25), places the legend on a firm historical basis, exploring the myths origins and resonance through art objects. These creations tell a story not only about aesthetics and religion but also about trade and politics, and how all of these were intimately intertwined in the complex pre-Columbian world.
“Children of the Plumed Serpent,” curated by John Pohl, Victoria Lyall and the late Virginia Fields, is the first exhibition to comprehensively survey the civilizations of southern Mexico— the Mixtec, Nahua and Zapotec—through their material objects, and to assess their influence on the larger Mesoamerican world. That influence was powerful and wide-ranging, and the cult of Quetzalcoatl was the primary vehicle for it. His characteristic iconography is that of a plumed or feathered serpent; the quetzal is a brightly colored bird native to the region. The attributes of a bird and a snake combine with those of a man; Quetzalcoatl can be thought of as the human incarnation of the plumed serpent god. The legend—which can truly be considered a foundation myth not just of Mexican history but of Mesoamerican history as a whole—occurs in several variations, but it can basically be boiled down to this: Quetzalcoatl was a wise, chaste king who taught his subjects arts and sciences. One day, perhaps acting on bad advice from an unwise counselor or rival, he gets drunk and commits some indiscretion. In shame and despair, he abandons his capital city of Tollan and embarks on a long journey through southern Mexico (in some accounts he is banished instead of leaving voluntarily). Eventually he burns himself to death in an act of expiation and his incinerated body is magically transformed into the planet Venus. After this cosmic resurrection, Quetzalcoatl becomes a savior, though it is expected that one day he will return in triumph to his kingdom.
The widespread belief in the return of Quetzalcoatl accounts for the seemingly strange fact that the southern Mexicans identified the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes with the plumed serpent. As recounted in the exhibitions scholarly catalogue, 1519, the year in which the Spanish fleet appeared off the coast of Veracruz, was equivalent of the Aztec year 1 Reed, which has special significance in the Quetzalcoatl myth. Since the local Mixtecs were warring with the Aztecs, it seemed plausible that the Spaniards might be useful as allies against the Aztecs, and going one step further, that Cortes himself might be Quetzalcoatl, returned from western exile to help his children.
In the end, even the Aztecs accepted the identification, and when they received the conquistador they bedecked him in the full dress of the god-hero—including a turquoise-mosaic mask (of which an example is on view in the LACMA show) and a quetzal-feather headdress. While the Aztec romance with Cortes was soon to sour (he captured their capital, Tenochtitlan, on August 13, 1521, after what the catalogue calls “the longest continuous battle in the annals of world military history”), the southern Mexicans had little reason to repent of their identification of the Spaniard with the mythic hero. The Europeans were certainly colonialists, but they in effect liberated the Mixtecs, Nahua and Zapotecs from their native oppressors, and the southern Mexican religion and way of life were allowed to continue, surviving largely intact down to the present day. In the 1930s and ’40s, the anthropologist, ethnologist and artist Miguel Covarrubias noted the remarkable self-sufficiency and groundedness in tradition of the indigenous people of the Zapotec regions along the Pacific coast of Mexico, which he chronicled (and illustrated) beautifully in his 1946 book Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
This area of Mexico is actually the source of much of Mesoamerican culture. Quetzalcoatl’s legendary capital of Tollan, is identified by archaeologists with the site of Tula, capital of the Toltec kingdom, where excavations have yielded rich finds (some of which are on view in the LACMA show). Tollan’s twin city was Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, known today for its well-preserved pyramids and temples. Chichen was a Maya city, but its inhabitants also adhered to the religion of Quetzalcoatl (whom they called Kukulcan). Vigorous trading took place between the two cities, in which the elites dealt in coveted materials such as turquoise, spondyla (spiny oyster) shells, cacao, feathers and gold, all of which were used in the worship of Quetzalcoatl. The trade spread throughout Mesoamerica, and merchants ranged as far as modern-day New Mexico, where the precious turquoise came from. When Tollan fell in 1200, the Toltecs moved southward to a new capital, Cholula, which became a kind of Rome or Mecca for the Quetzalcoatl cult. One of the strengths of this exhibition is its down-to-earth approach to a subject often given an airy-fairy treatment; it focuses on the material culture of the Quetzalcoatl religion, tracing it through trade and exploring how the religion drove the need for material goods and how the trade in goods affected the religion itself. In Cholula, the lords were merchants, and Quetzalcoatl himself became a merchant god. Each year a massive feast was held in the main square of Cholula, at which the merchant-nobles tried to outdo each other in the spending of money on lavish display. Some of that money went to art patronage, and the LACMA curators chronicle the rise of an “international art style” between 1200 and 1300. As embodied in polychromed ceramics, works in bone, shell and stone, as well as in books called codices written in pictographic script, it was characterized by geometric precision and regularity, strong colors, a cartoon-like exaggeration of faces and hands, and a use of icon-like symbols for certain thoughts or concepts. On view at the exhibition, por- tions of the Codex Nuttall and the Codex Selden (named for their former American or European owners), recounting events both mythic and historical, exemplify the fascinating combination of crudeness and complexity that has endeared Mesoamerican picture books to many viewers.
When southern Mexico fell under Spanish sway, the cult of Quetzalcoatl didn’t die. The children of the plumed serpent found ways to adapt, keep their dignity, and preserve their religion in an environment dominated by Roman Catholicism. Having become Spanish allies during the fight for the conquest of Mexico, the Mixtec, Nahua and Zapotec elites now fought on behalf of the Spanish colonial mission, in some cases serving in the military as far away as the Philippines. But as before, the most prestigious occupation was business, and the merchant princes were now transformed into a new being—the cacique, a combination feudal lord and long-distance trader who adopted Spanish dress and names. Caciques commissioned elaborate illustrated documents and maps that established the bona fides of their land possessions and linked them both to the former regime and to the Spanish empire (of these, the Mapa de Teozacoalco is on view at LACMA). Occasionally some among their number rebelled, and when they did, it was usually under the banner of—no surprise here—the plumed serpent himself, whose imminent return was announced. The exhibition ends with a section devoted to “The Children of the Plumed Serpent Today” that showcases some of the products of modern-day artisans of southern Mexico. As the curators explain, five million indigenous people now live in the region, and Cholula remains a pilgrimage site, visited by a quarter of a million people during the festival of the Virgin of Remedios in the first week of September each year. At “the richest indigenous market in the North America,” visitors can see baskets and textiles from Puebla and Oaxaca, woven according to ancient patterns that never were forgotten. These textiles are in demand outside the immediate region, including in the United States, where decora- tors and hotel chains alike buy them. The money from such sales goes back into the indigenous communities, where the age-old link between culture and commerce persists. The descen- dants of yesterday’s merchant princes are still in business.
The idea of the return of Quetzalcoatl has been deeply alluring to all sorts of people, Mexican and foreign, over the centuries, for different yet related reasons. For pre-Columbian Mesoamericans, it was a myth of redemption, like others all over the world (including Christianity) that offer some relief from the human condition. For embattled indigenous Mexicans in the colonial period, it promised a setting back of the clock to a time before foreign oppression. For a Mexican modernist like José Clemente Orozco, whose murals at Dartmouth College include a cycle called “The Return of Quetzalcoatl,” it meant the promise of world brotherhood and the discarding of antiquated ideas. For D.H. Lawrence, who in 1924 published a novel called The Plumed Serpent, set in New Mexico, Quetzalcoatl was a potent symbol of the survival of pagan ways in a superficially Christian environment. And in that vein, today’s enthusiasts for “2012” see Quetzalcoatl as a New Age savior, bringing with him blissed-out mass spiritual enlightenment.
But those who take the time to experience this exhibition of artworks, objects and documents will come to realize that there’s no need to look for a return of Quetzalcoatl, because in southern Mexico, at least, he never left.