From Ancient Culture to Antique Kitsch: Mexican Feather Art

Screen Shot 2019-10-29 at 8.54.58 AMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

If you had been lucky enough to be museum hopping in Mexico City a while back (2011), you would have encountered a two-museum exhibit that marked the rebirth of an ancient Mexican art.  Alas: El vuelo de las imágenes del mundo indigena (Wings:  The flight of images from the indigenous world) took place at the famous National Museum of Anthropology and History and the somewhat less visited National Museum of Art (Museo Nacional de Arte, now known as MUNAL – see article elsewhere in this issue).  The exhibit was followed in 2016 by a book of 33 essays exploring the creative interaction between the new and old worlds, as seen in … FEATHERS (Images Take Flight:  Feather Art in Mexico and Europe, 1400 – 1700). 

Plumaria – a Fragile Art

The work shown was plumaria (sometimes plumeria), or featherwork, which combines art and craft to produce textiles, ceremonial costumes, mosaics made of tiny bits of feathers, and decorative objects, both sacred and profane.  For three centuries (about 1400 to 1700), plumaria was considered high art.  The fragility of feathers, however, means very few examples survive of all the work – headdresses, shields (chimalli), cloaks, wall hangings, banners, screens, decorative and funerary objects – so coveted by the Aztecs before the conquest and by the conqueror Hernán Cortés, who sent any number of pieces back to Europe, more about that later. After the conquest, the Catholic rulers of New Spain convinced the feather artists to produce Christian work – altar pieces, priestly garments, wall hangings, you name it, adorned with images of Mary, Jesus, saints, and sacred stories.  

The exhibition came out of years of international collaboration by art scholars and historians from the U.S. and Italy working with the National Museum of Anthropology and MUNAL. Italian art historian Alessandra Russo, Ph.D., who teaches at Columbia University, first saw photos of Mexican featherwork in 1994 and started reading up on it. Her curiosity led her to Gerhard Wolf, Ph.D., Director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, where there is a major piece of Christian feather art sent from Mexico, and Diana Fane, Ph.D., the Andrew W. Mellon Curator Emerita for Arts of the Americas.  This heavily credentialed crew approached the Getty Foundation for support, and in 2002 the Foundation awarded them nearly $200,000 to prepare the exhibition.  

The money also supported research into conservation of feather art – feathers are fragile, bugs love to eat them, daylight fades them, they lose their iridescence; if it’s too dry, they get brittle and collapse, if it’s too humid, they get moldy and rot.  And don’t forget those damn bugs!

The exhibit and book have prompted more interest in featherwork.  A 2014 documentary by Jaime Kuri Aiza, El Penacho de Moctezuma, plumaria del México antiguo (Montezuma’s Headdress:  Featherwork of Ancient Mexico), won an Ariel (Mexico’s Oscar) for best short documentary; you can see great closeups of featherwork (www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaI48sA_XGs) in the 75-minute film, which also won the Scientific and Cultural Reporting prize at Mexico’s 2014 National Journalism Awards. In 2016, UNAM (Mexico’s national university) added a postgraduate art history course on Plumaria de México, arte y tecnología (Featherwork of Mexico, art and technology), and there have been lectures and conferences in various universities since then.  Even better, the conservation research sponsored by the Getty Foundation may well make future exhibitions more likely – and, just possibly, bring a Mexican treasure home, more about that later as well.

The Amantecas 

When he wrote to his king (Charles I of Spain, and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire to boot) to describe Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), the place he would conquer in the years 1519-25, Cortés said it was “as big as Seville or Cordoba.  The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes.”  

Feathers, he reported, could be bought in a great marketplace, most probably the one in neighboring Tlatelolco, an adjacent island to the north of Tenochtitlán.  According to Cortés, 60,000 people shopped there every day. Perhaps the most prized feathers were those of the resplendent quetzal, native to Central America, but the market sold feathers, mostly imported, of many colorful tropical birds – cotinga, hummingbird, emerald toucanet, troupial, macaw, troupial, and parrot feathers.  Feathers were exceedingly valuable, and so were used to pay the tributes demanded by ancient rulers.  Feathers were measured by the handful – one codex lists three tributes of “eight thousand little handfuls of rich turquoise feathers,” “rich red feathers” and “rich green feathers.”  Since a bird the size of a parrot yields somewhere between seven and eight handfuls, perhaps the decline of feather art was in the cards from the beginning.  A tribute of 8000 feathers would kill 1000 birrds.  There were severe penalties for those who dared to wear feathers when not entitled to do so.

Before the conquest (1519-25), plumaria was created throughout Mexico, but the most renowned feather artists were the amantecas, men of the Amantla neighborhood in Tenochtitlán.  There were also tecpan amantecas, feather artists who “made it” – they worked in the royal palace where they had their birds kept right on hand in cages; there were so many, it apparently took a crew of 300 to care for the aviaries.  

The city had about 70 independently organized neighborhoods, some of which, like Amantla, were organized as calpulli, or artisan guilds (“amanteca” also includes weavers and painters).  Gold- and silversmiths lived and worked in a neighborhood called Yopico, fishermen were found in Hitznahua, the merchants in Pochtlan, and the pulque producers in Tlamatzinco.  Calpulli had members of the noble classes; they provided the costly materials for artisan creations – for the amantecas, it was the brilliant feathers.

We know from the Florentine Codex (c. 1577), Father Bernardino de Sahagún’s encyclopedia of “the things of New Spain,” that dimensional pieces like headdresses or wristlets were made by tying the feathers to a base with agave cord.  The feather mosaics, called “feather painting” by the Spanish, were a more exacting craft, involving very small pieces of feathers from multiple kinds of birds pasted down on paper with a glue made from orchid bulbs, and backed with a layer of amate, or paper made from pounded tree bark.  

El Penacho (The Headdress) of Moctezuma II 

For a brief while after Cortés arrived, landing in Vercruz and moving on to Tenochtitlán, all was well.  Moctezuma II entertained the Spanish, gifts were exchanged, etc., etc. before things went downhill.  It is possible that one of those gifts from Moctezuma II to Cortés was an imperial headdress made of glowing green quetzal feathers. 

Given its fragility, only two examples of pre-conquest feather art remain in Mexico itself, and the headdress is not one of them.  Whether or not Moctezuma actually gifted the headdress to Cortés, or ever wore it himself, is debatable.  In any event, off it went to Europe, possibly in a group of gifts known to have been sent over to Cortes upon his arrival in Veracruz, then dispatched to Spain as proof of success. 

The headdress is now displayed in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, Austria.  It had been discovered in 1878 by Ferdinand von Hochstetter, a geologist, explorer, and the newly appointed director of the then-new museum, who was wandering the countryside looking for exhibits.  In a dusty drawer in Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Hochstetter came upon something the castle inventory had listed as both an “Indian Apron” and “Moorish hat.”  Hochstetter decided it wasn’t wearable, so it must be a battle flag, carried into combat on a pole. 

It is primarily made of hundreds of emerald-green tailfeathers of the resplendent quetzal, but in the center is a feather mosaic of red, blue, and green body feathers from the quetzal and other birds, with sewn-on gold ornaments.  The whole thing is supported by tying each feather to a wicker frame with agave thread.

It took the work of an anthropologist, the American Zelia Nuttall, to determine that it was a headdress.  When she published her findings in the very first issue of Harvard’s Peabody Museum Papers (1887), no one believed her, of course.  Not until she showed up in Paris at the 1888 International Congress of Americanists wearing a mock-up of the headdress was it acknowledged that, yes, indeed, it could be a pre-Hispanic headdress.  

There is a reproduction of the headdress in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, made in 1940 and actually more vivid than the original.  Over the last 30-odd years, Mexico and Austria have been wrangling over repatriation of the original.  The Austrian argument is that it is too fragile to withstand the vibrations of an air journey back to the New World, unless it traveled in a special case in a humongous airplane (nearly ten times the size of the Concorde), it wouldn’t make it.  So there it sits in Austria.

In the Service of the Church

As soon as the Conquest was complete, the Spanish decided that feather art should be converted to Christian purposes, and the amantecas were set to “painting” religious works in feathers to adorn altars, the walls of cathedrals, and the bodies of priests.  

Arguably the oldest surviving piece of Mexican feather art (certainly the oldest colonial mosaic with Christian imagery), the Mass of Saint Gregory is currently being shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue in New York.  The inscription indicates that Father Pedro de Gante, who had established a school to train amantecas in the subtleties of producing Christian images and themes, commissioned the piece from then-governor Diego de Alvarado Huinitzin (ironically both nephew and son-in-law to Moctezuma II); it was completed in 1539 as a gift to Pope Paul III.  Paul had recently (1537) issued a papal bull declaring that the indigenous peoples were rational human beings with souls and should not be enslaved.    

The mosaic is based on a European engraving, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, showing Pope Gregory I (540 – 604) celebrating the Eucharist. Christ, bearing the wounds of crucifixion, floats above him to represent transubstantiation – the wafer has become the body of Christ.     

Feathers Fall to Earth

As the amantecas who had been able to turn their craft from indigenous motifs to Christian art began to die off, feather art likewise declined, partly because European art had moved to focus on developments in oil painting, especially for religious images, and because interest in indigenous arts waned as exploration and exotica gave way to settlement and economic exploitation of the New World.  

Featherwork became more varied and popularized, e.g., feathered fans for the ladies, family insignia such as crests and shields, and a few depictions of historical events.  By the 1700s, feather art was produced by non-indigenous artists, and was combined with areas of oil painting for the faces, paper borders instead of gold, etc.  By the 1800s, feather art had just about disappeared except in some areas of Michoacán, where the explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) bought an image of Our Lady of Health in Pátzcuaro made of hummingbird and other kinds of feathers, with Mary’s face and hands painted in oil. Now referred to as The Feather Madonna, it resides in the Ethnological Museum of the Staatliche Museum of Berlin.

By the 20th century, what had been a magnificent mixture of art and craft had descended into an amusing handcraft; the supply of exotic, brilliant feathers was long gone, and featherwork was done with dyed chicken plumage.  Although several artists have tried to revive the art, the lack of feathers has proved an insuperable obstacle.  

At midcentury, though, if you wandered on Avenida Juárez and Calle Madero in Mexico City, you could find curiosidades mexicanas (Mexican curiosities) using feathers.  In carved wooden frames, most often on black backgrounds, exotic birds that never lived have been created with dyed poultry feathers, their strange trees painted with equally unreal colors.  These proved popular souvenirs for tourists – my pair was purchased in an antique shop in Scarborough, Maine, and any eBay search for “Mexican folk art feathercraft” turns up a seemingly unlimited supply.  On average, you’ll be spending about $10 apiece on eBay, although one made in 1972 showing multiple birds sitting near a pond, surrounded by vaguely Japanese flowers, would run you $50.00, plus $17.83 for shipping within the continental U.S. 

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