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Date: c. 1300-1500
Medium:Ceramic, tufa, stucco, and paint
Geographic Location: Mexico, Teotitlan del Camino (?)
Dimensions: Overall: 51 x 41 x 46 in. (129.54 x 104.14 x 116.84 cm) Weight: 989 lb. (448.6075 kg)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus in memory of Mary Freiberg
Object Number: 1967.5
This large ceramic head created by the Mixtec people of southern Mexico represents the god of rain and lightning, who was called Tlaloc by the Aztecs. It functioned as a vessel for burning incense, billowing smoke into the sky as an offering to the gods.
Various visual characteristics on this sculpture identify him as Tlaloc. Blue circles around the eyes represent pools of water, and jaguar-like fangs—no longer attached—may suggest flowing streams of water. The serpents on Tlaloc’s face near his cheeks, nose, and mouth represent lightning, which splits the clouds to release rain.
While Tlaloc is the Aztec name for the rain god, this deity was worshipped over a wide area and known by many different names. The rain god is one of the oldest deities in ancient Mexico. Though generally considered kind, he could bring harm and destruction by withholding rain and causing droughts, or by sending too much rain and causing floods. Some of the earliest images of the rain god have been found at Teotihuacan, the archaeological site north of Mexico City, which flourished between A.D. 200 and A.D. 700.
Visual characteristics of the rain god include goggle-like circles around the eyes, prominent teeth, serpent imagery, and the color blue. Circles around the eyes may suggest standing pools of water or ripples caused by falling raindrops. Teeth, often those of a jaguar, would have looked somewhat like flowing streams of water. The physical characteristics of serpents were related to rain in Mesoamerican cultures. Their long, twisting anatomies are similar in shape to lightning, which was believed to split the clouds to release rain (Flannery and Marcus 1983:38). A serpent’s body also looks similar to channels of water, or long curving “pipes.” Additionally, representations of Tlaloc are often blue to reference the sky and its reflection in the water of lakes and oceans.
This sculpture of Tlaloc was discovered alongside two large ceramic frogs. The three were probably assembled together as a shrine to the rain god. In Mesoamerica, frogs were worshipped for their association with rain and fertility. Tlaloc, also worshipped for his association with rain and fertility, is often presented surrounded by four frogs, who mark the cardinal directions.
Pair of crouching frogs, Mexico, state of Oaxaca, Teotitlan del Camino (?), Mixtec culture, c. A.D. 1300-1500, Mexico, Teotitlan del Camino, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase
The Mixtec people have lived for centuries in the mountainous region of what is today southern Mexico, in the western part of the state of Oaxaca, and in adjacent areas of the states of Guerrero and Puebla. From about A.D. 1000, the Mixtec settled in ancient communities in valleys separated by mountain ranges. Each of these valley communities was ruled by a local lord.
Mixtec craftsmen were widely recognized for their superb work in turquoise mosaic and in gold. They also produced pictorial manuscripts—or folding deerskin books—and elaborately painted ceramics. In the 15th century, when the contemporary Aztec people began to expand their empire outward from Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico, they brought the Mixtec area under their control. To maintain peace, the Mixtec people paid tribute to the Aztecs, in the form of fine textiles, collars of greenstone beads, bunches of green feathers, bags of prized red dye (cochineal), and quantities of gold dust (Townsend 1993:90).
We know the Mixtec people and this sculpture of the rain god by names that come from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The Aztecs called the Mixtec area Mixtlan, “place of clouds,” and the people became known as “cloud people” (Flannery and Marcus 1983:xxi). The Mixtecs called themselves ñuu-dzavui, “people of rain” or “people of the rain deity.”
The Mixtec created this colossal head as a vessel for burning rubber or copal—or tree resin—as incense. The smoke from the incense would billow into the sky as an offering to the gods and possibly evoking rain clouds. This incense burner would have originally been placed outdoors in an urban setting, possibly atop a pyramid.
Various cultures since antiquity have used incense-burning as a way to make offerings to deities or to facilitate communication with them. In Buddhism, for example, incense is believed to purify a space. And, in Christianity incense is often perceived as a symbol of a prayer rising into the heavens.
The term Mesoamerica refers primarily to the ancient cultures of modern-day Mexico and Guatemala. Geographically, the term encompasses an area that extends from northern Mexico, south and east through Guatemala and Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador, and on to western Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica. Many ancient cultures that developed in this area shared certain characteristics: the construction of pyramids and temples; a complex calendar; hieroglyphic writing; a belief system that included multiple gods, human sacrifice, and ritual bloodletting by individuals; and a ballgame played with a solid rubber ball and an I-shaped court. (Coe, Snow, and Benson 1986:85)
Archaeology is the study of past cultures and peoples through the examination of material remains, such as fossil relics, works of art, artifacts, monuments, and graves. It emerged as a discipline in the late 19th century. Much of what we know today about the prehistoric past is from archaeological studies. Archaeologists dig into the ground, or excavate, to recover historical material to be studied. After dating the object and taking into account the material’s location, archaeologists can begin to interpret the material to place it within a historical context.
1. Look closely at this sculpture. What stands out to you? What visual characteristics might indicate that this is an important or powerful figure?
2. Compare and contrast Head of the rain god Tlaloc with Mask, possibly of Tlaloc. How are these representations of the same deity similar and different?
3. Tlaloc is the Mixtec god of rain. Create a list of all the reasons rain might have been important to the Mixtec. In what ways is rain important to you?
4. This sculpture originally functioned as an incense burner, and the smoke from the incense was an offering to the rain god. What is its function now? How do you think the Mixtecs who created it would have interacted with it? How do we interact with it?
1. Many different cultures and religions use incense burning in rituals. For example, incense burning was incorporated into rituals of ancient Egyptians and Mesoamericans, as well as present-day Buddhists and Christians. Investigate one culture that incorporates incense into its religion or ritual and design a presentation for your classmates. How do different peoples and cultures use incense?
2. What kinds of materials can be used for incense? What makes incense aromatic? Research our sense of smell. How do scents or fragrances affect us? What makes our sense of smell possible?
a. Think about the science of experiencing a scent and write a report on your findings.
b. Write an essay arguing that the sense of smell is the most important of the five senses. Use your research to support your argument.
3. Other Mesoamerican and non-Mesoamerican cultures, such as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, worshipped deities of rain. Research other examples of rain gods. What do all of these deities have in common? Why might various cultures have gods dedicated to rain?
4. Think of a natural phenomenon, such as rain, wind, hail, etc. Design a sculpture to represent that phenomenon. What elements of that phenomenon can you incorporate into your sculpture?
5. In Mesoamerica, frogs are associated with rain because they are amphibious and chirp before rain falls. Design an imaginary animal that is associated with rain. What characteristics of this animal are related to rain or water?
|Learn about the Mixtec culture.|
Listen to sound designs created by UT Dallas students in response to this sculpture.
|Listen to sound designs created by UT Dallas students in response to this sculpture.|
|Listen to preparator Russell Sublette discuss moving this large sculpture.|
Coe, Michael, Dean Snow, and Elizabeth Benson. Atlas of Ancient America. New York and Oxford: Facts On File Publications, 1986.
Evans, Susan Toby, and David L. Webster. Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia. London: Taylor & Francis US, 2001.
Fields, Virginia M., John M. D. Pohl, and Victoria I. Lyall. Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico. New York: Scala Publishers, 2012.
Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1993.
Phillips, Charles, and David M. Jones. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Aztec and Maya: The Definitive Chronicle of the Ancient Peoples of Mexico and Central America - Including the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Mixtec, Toltec and Zapotec. Dayton, OH: Lorenz, 2007.
Pitman, Bonnie, ed. Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2012.
Books for Students:
Enciso, Jorge. Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico. New York: Dover Publications, 1953.
Enciso, Jorge. Design Motifs from Pre-Columbian Mexico. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Harper, Jo. Birth of the Fifth Sun: And Other Mesoamerican Tales. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2008.
Peppas, Lynn. Life in Ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 2004.
Explore significant events in Mexico from 8000 B.C. to the present day.
This website, stewarded by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provides scholarly research on Mesoamerica.
This teaching guide offers contextual information about Mexican works of art in the Smithsonian collection.
Explore present-day archaeological discoveries.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.