The Birth of Mesoamerican and Andean Artistry
By Erica Seidman
The Olmec and Chavin peoples were important to the development of Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations because they provided the foundations of cultural influence in which their predecessors derived from. In particular, the two artistic styles that became prevalent throughout pre-Columbian civilizations can be credited to the time when the Olmec and Chavin peoples lived whom marked the beginning of artistic production in Mesoamerican and Andean artistic styles. These art styles were reproduced in settings that were clearly important in each of their cultures and are consistently seen in a variety of media and contexts where nature and religion served as the backbone of their cultural and artistic expression. Particularly looking at the content and form of the Olmec and Chavin artistic styles as integrated into the different media at the ceremonial centers of San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Chavin de Huantar, this essay will compare and contrast how Mesoamerican and Andean religion and topography during the reign of the Olmec and Chavin peoples were central to the birth of strict stylistic code where their subject matters are seemingly thematic in nature and carried on throughout Mesoamerican and Andean cultures. Considered the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, the Olmec peoples believed in a connection between the terrestrial and celestial spheres. The Olmec world consisted of three environments: the A-physical realm, a human environment, and a world that controlled the other two, a spiritual realm. The fertile Gulf lands provided an agricultural surplus, in particular the growth of maize, which was believed to be controlled by the Olmec Maize God and represented in art as a were-jaguar. The different media found at San Lorenzo and La Venta, captured the environment of the Mexican states as well as were artistically expressed with a consistent subject matter in the form of deities, ancestors, animals, and humans. The Olmec Dragon is the principal zoomorphic supernatural in Olmec art, and the terrestrial realm, or surface of the earth, is depicted on its back. Depictions of birds or bird motifs are representative of the sky realm and the flight to the supernatural world, while the watery realm represented by the crocodilian or Olmec dragon, aquatic creatures, shells, or circles depicts the underworld. The Axis Mundi , the world tree, and maize are at the center of the three cosmic realms. Represented as either a symbolic maize plant or other vegetative motif it is sometimes surrounded by four sprouting seeds, or four corners of the earth. Colossal heads and exquisite small objects carved from jadeite and other precious stones depict realistic human form with short, squat muscular bodies, short wide noses, and folds around the eyes that give them an oriental cast, fleshy mouths with thick sometimes down-turned lips, short necks and straight black hair. (Olmec Lecture)The Olmec ruler may be represented in costume as the world tree crowned by a headdress with maize motifs validating his power to unify the cosmos and, as the axis mundi, the conduit between the natural and supernatural realms. The architectural planning found at San Lorenzo was perhaps planned in a zoomorphic shape and Monument 52, for example, a sculpture of a crouching Olmec rain god, was hollowed on its back to guide copious water flow that eventually poured out into a recarved duct at the base, forming a duck fountain. (1) Likewise, the impressive mound found at La Venta may have been intended to echo the shape of a Central Mexican volcano with the intention of being designed to raise a perishable shrine. “The whole of La Venta was laid out on a specific axis establishing some principles of architectural planning that were repeated many times in the history of Mesoamerica: ceremonial cores laid out along astronomically determined axis; concern for natural topography a sort of geomancy-which may...
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