Iconography at Chavin de Huantar

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  • Topic: God, Chavín culture, Temple in Jerusalem
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  • Published : March 18, 2011
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Show how the iconography at Chavin de Huantar can be understood and what it can tell us about the Early Horizon ceremonialism in the Andean Highlands.

The Chavin iconography is expressed in a number of media and over a large area, having its focal point in central highland Peru and spreading to south to the river valleys, flood plains and the beaches of the Pacific Ocean coast. The famous examples include the stone sculptures from ancient ceremonial centre in highlands, which comprised the Old Temple and, later, the New Temple with adjacent Plaza. There were also found many portable objects bearing Chavin iconography, like ceramics, vessels, metalwork and textiles, many of which were recovered in coastal areas. The Chavin iconography usually presents scenes with human- animal beings that seem to perform ritual activities and tend to carry objects of significance, which all would have been vibrantly colored in red , white and yellow plaster (Rodriguez Kembel and Rick 2004, 62). These scenes are very exceptional as they are lacking in explicit political content, which puts Chavin art in sharp contrast with the socio-political content of the Peruvian art style of the Early Intermediate Period (Burger 1988, 123). What is more, this peculiar religious art is based ultimately on analogy and metaphor , which makes the end product almost incomprehensible for the viewer, yet, simultaneously, evoking the sensation of being in the presence of something extraordinary (Burger 1988, 130). This is achieved by the means of special canons, such as the use of “kennings” -metaphorical substitutes for body parts e.g. hair in form of snakes, repetition of design elements to form complex motifs, symmetry and anatropic organization that allows a picture to be inverted yet still present upright images (Wilson 1999, 376). Thus, not without a reason, the Chavin artistry was considered by Alfred Kroeber to be the pinnacle of prehistoric South American art (Kroeber, cited by Burger 1988, 130) and it has been presumed to be the work of professionals wholly dedicated to the creation of the appropriate artistic style that would express the power of Chavin religious ideology.

Like all religions, Chavin religion would have had the principal deity, of which the main depiction is in form of a carved, 4.53m tall stone placed in one of the subterranean passageway complexes of the Old Temple built in Urubarriu phase (2800-2500 BP). Because of the lance-like shape the stone was called Lanzon and presented quite a ferocious portrait of anthropomorphic deity (see Fig. 1). It clearly presents a male with human limbs, ears and hands, wearing jewelry and a short skirt. His non-human features, most importantly, include the large upper incisors or fangs emerging from snarling mouth , which have been variously interpreted as expressing associations with carnivores, like cayman or anaconda, or being indicators of supernatural strength and ferocity (Burger 1995, 150) . Other features comprise the bat - like nose, the eyebrows and hair in form of snakes and a headdress made of fanged feline heads. All this makes up for a picture of a dangerous and powerful god, yet in a passive pose that implies him being in a process of maintaining the balance of the cosmos that would ensure the stability of Chavin society and fertility of crops and animals (Burger 1995, 150). Lanzon’s importance is also emphasized by its location as it is in the central place of the temple with restricted access, which suggests that the designers of the chamber desired full control over the experience of visiting the deity (Rodriguez Kembel and Rick 2004, 67). The function of the god remains unknown, however, ethnographic analogies imply celestial associations and Rowe interpreted Lanzon as a sky god, whereas Tello identified it with Wira - Kocha , the creator god worshipped by the Incas (Burger 1995, 150).

Two more important depictions of supreme deity were curved five centuries later in...
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