Artistic Cultures of Asia and the Americas

Pre-Columbian Art



During the early years of the colonization of the Americas, Europeans
were confronted with flourishing civilizations that revealed a very advanced level of cultural development. The highly impressive artistic works of these native peoples ranged from monumental stone temples to extremely
refined and original goldwork.


The American continent had evolved its own cultures and powerful empires prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in 1492. Europeans, represented by the wealthy, dominant monarchies as well as the humble colonists, destroyed, destabilized, and transformed the peoples of the Americas and their cultures. The nomadic tribal cultures of the great plains are not as well documented because of the perishable nature of their goods.
However, many of the material cultures of Mexico, Guatemala, and the Central Andes have survived, leaving spectacular ruins and artifacts.


The Art of Mesoamerica

Mesoamerica, or Middle America, is the term recognized by geographers and archaeologists to describe the vast territory' extending from central Mexico to the western regions of Honduras and El Salvador. The highly developed civilizations of these areas share a common heritage, evolved from what is regarded as the "mother culture" of the Americas, the Olmec civilization, which existed between 1700 and 400bc. The development of agriculture in Mesoamerica led to the formation of simple village communities, which, in the course of time, became increasingly complex. Their development culminated in the appearance of the so-called "high culture" of the Olmecs, who occupied a territory along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. Artists and craftsmen found aesthetic expression in the creation of works that often served as offerings to their deities, providing a means of placating the gods and exorcizing the difficulties of everyday life through worship.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Rare example of an Aztec calendar.
Bologna University Library.

In the valley of Mexico, art objects were still confined to female terracotta figurines associated with fertility rites. The Olmecs, on the other hand, had already mastered certain techniques to produce works that would endure in Mesoamerica for centuries, notably ceremonial platforms, temple pyramids, glyphic writing, stone sculpture, and the ritual calendar. Sculpture often took the form of gigantic-monolithic heads realistically portraying eminent persons, until the culture declined in about the fourth century BC. A more mature expression of art is revealed by the highly developed cultures of the Classic Period (AD250-900). This stage of development saw the growth of the great city of Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico, the largest metropolis on the entire American continent. Buildings, wall-paintings, and ceramics from the city reveal a society characterized by intense religious activity and a serene devotion to the gods. The Zapotec culture of Oaxaca is deservedly considered important, not only for its monumental architecture and its numerous stelae but also for the complex iconography found on terracotta funerary urns. The Totonacs, who settled along the Gulf coast, skilfully fused various cultural influences to create excellent pieces of stone sculpture and anthropomorphic pottery, with realistic portrayals of high-ranking individuals. In about AD900, successive invasions by peoples from the north put an end to the finely balanced Classic cultures and initiated the post-Classic period (AD900-1521).

Polychrome ceramic vase with geometric designs
and figures and three splayed feet in the shape of snakes,
Mixtec culture, late post-Classic period (1300-1521).
National Anthropological Museum, Mexico City.

This was characterized by more warlike subjects and a religious belief system that was often founded upon the ritual of human sacrifice in order to appease the divinities. The forms of art were designed to be awe-inspiring and to make manifest the tremendous power of the gods. The Toltecs, who disseminated much of this new vision of the world, were the first people in Mexico to work precious metals; but it was the Mixtecs who were responsible for unifying Mesoameriea on the artistic plane. Gifted craftsmen, they excelled in making objects decorated with mosaics and in painting deerskin codices that recounted dynastic histories, in working gold, and in producing polychrome pottery. Later, Aztec art principally took the form of stone sculpture, its powerfully expressive images spare and severe, conveying a strong sense of anguish. The history of the Maya is to some extent separate from that of Mexico. It was during the Classic period that Maya artistic production, centred predominantly in the rainforests of Peten, reached its highest levels of achievement. City-states like that of Tikal, which was spread over 16 square kilometres (6 square miles), were to emerge, characterized by tall buildings, especially temple-pyramids built of limestone and faced with lime stucco, and a profusion of sculpture, which was often used to decorate the most important of these structures. In the post-Classic period, architects began to adopt the horizontal plan, exemplified by grandiose, colonnaded buildings. Other noteworthy areas of artistic production included earthenware, stucco sculpture, jadeite working, and wall-painting.

Colossal monolithic head in basalt.
Olmec culture, Mexico.

Temple I. Tikal Guatemala.
The steep stepped pyramid, topped by an altar or sanctuary,
is typical of Maya temple-pyramids in the rainforests of Guatemala.






Metate in volcanic stone, first to fifth century AD.
National Museum, Costa Rica.


The long land-bridge that links the two Americas, separating the cultures of Mesoamerica to the north from those of the Andes to the south, exhibits an extremely rich and complex history of archaeology and art. In fact, it may be regarded both as a meeting and dispersal point of diverse traditions. Mesoamerican cultures influenced an area consisting of El Salvador and Honduras in the north to western Nicaragua and Nicoya, Costa Rica, in the south. Painting and sculpture were integrated in potter}', with receptacles being decorated with representations of animals and divinities related to the Mesoamerican pantheon. In sculpture, there were gigantic statues of humans standing over animals and tables for grinding maize (metates), giving an impression of vigour and realism. The working of jade was also important. Eastern Nicaragua, Costa Rica (except for Nicoya). and Panama, on the other hand, were more closely related to the South American cultural traditions. In ceramics, the Code (Panama) style of pottery is renowned for its exuberant colours, while in Costa Rica, ovoid multicoloured vessels, with feline heads and legs in relief, became the most common form of pottery. Goldwork was also highly developed, similar both in technique and form to that of Colombia.

Cup with polychrome decoration,
Cocle style, Panama.

Polychrome tripod vase with a jaguar,
Gran Nicoyac 1000-1350.
National Museum, Costa Rica.



Detail of Maya mural showing dignitary
and figures with zoomorphic masks.
Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico.


In 1946, painted murals were discovered at Bonampak, in the rainforests of Chiapas in southern Mexico. These are considered to be some of the most important works of their kind in ancient America. The murals cover the whole wall of a small building — a commemorative monument built by a Maya king who reigned in the Classic period from AD776. The paintings are perfectly preserved, thanks to a layer of limestone that had completely covered them for centuries. Although sober in style, certain details were emphasized by the use of a variety of bright colours; for example, the minute portrayal of objects and ornaments that are flaunted by several individuals. The scene depicts a
warring expedition that ends with the capture and sacrifice of prisoners and the glorification of the victorious monarch, who performs rituals in honour of the gods.

The paintings of Bonampak not only reveal crucial information about episodes in the life of the Maya ruling classes, but also reveal the presence of an artist who succeeded in combining the strict conventions of official art with individual creativity. Such freedom of expression appears particularly in the psychology of the main figures and in the attentive portrayal of some of the protagonists, whose features may be recognized in various scenes of the fresco cvcle.


Detail from mural with figures of Maya dignitaries.
Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico.




The god Tlaloc from a mural painting at Teotihuacan,
Classic period (AD250-900).


No other pre-Columbian city in Mexico is so rich in pictorial works as Teotihuacan. In one of its greatest monuments, the complex of Teplantitla, there is a fresco known as "the Paradise of Tlaloc", because the unknown artist portrays a place of delight, serenity, and eternal plenty. Designated for all the dead who had honoured the gods in life, it is presided over by Tlaloc, the rain god and one of the most important gods in the Teotihuacan pantheon. High up on the wall is the image of Tlaloc, majestic and hieratic, the bearer of gifts. Lower down, however, in an entirely different style, in which the artist gives full play to his creative fantasy, is the representation of a tropical paradise. Indicated by the lush vegetation, it is inhabited by tranquil folk who spend their time in games, repose, singing, and contemplation. This is a vision of the blessed life promised to those who, throughout their lifetime, had faithfully honoured Tlaloc.


Fragment of mural depicting plant and flower motifs, Teotihuacan.
National Anthropological Museum, Mexico City.



The Art of the Central Andes

Present-day Peru and the northwest part of Bolivia constitute the geographical-cultural area known as the Central Andes. Despite the challenge posed by the harsh terrain and inimical climate, or perhaps because of this very fact, cultures flourished that were more highly developed than any others in South America. The extraordinary works of art created by the people of pre-Hispanic Peru are often difficult to date precisely, but it is known that the cultural foundations of the ancient civilizations of the Andes were already firmly established at the settlement of Chavin de Huantar between 1000 and 300BC. This centre was renowned for its religious ideology and artistic style. Its magnificent stone temples were designed with steps that opened out onto broad squares, its sculpture included both bas-relief and carving, and its pottery, dark in colour, was strongly figurative. During the third century BC, the Chavin culture declined, to be succeeded by other regional cultures, notably the Moche of the northern coast and the Nazca on the southern coast. Over a period that lasted until AD600, they both displayed an advanced level of artistic expression. The Moche state built large huacas (temple structures with steps) in adobe (sun-dried clay bricks) and decorated them with frescos. The Moche culture is well known for its ceramic art, which was often found accompanying the deceased to their tomb. The pieces were strongly naturalistic, with a tendency towards moulded forms. The Nazca are known for their ceremonial centres and cities. Bright polychrome colours characterized both pottery and textiles, the latter being of particular refinement and indicative of Nazca artistic sensibility.

The ruins of Chan Chan, Chimu culture.
Moche Valley, Peru, 1000-1450.


The cloaks and ponchos were adorned with geometrical or naturalistic motifs and utilized a number of sophisticated techniques, including embroidery, brocading, fine needlepoint, and delicate lacework. Around ad600, the city of Tiahuanaco (Bolivia), situated at some 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) from Lake Titicaca, imposed its rule over a large part of Peruvian and Bolivian territory. Over time, Tiahuanacoid culture initiated a trend towards political and cultural unification. The artistic style of Tiahuanaco can be clearly seen in its monumental architecture such as stone temples with staircases, imposing ceremonial precincts, and gigantic anthropomorphic monoliths. The Gate of the Sun is famous for the complex religious scene carved in the architrave, portraying the "'Staff god", one of the most important deities of the ancient Andean pantheon.
Perhaps because of the over-exploitation of local resources by the state, Tiahuanaco went into decline in about the year AD1000, and other regional cultures found new strength, with their art clearly inspired by earlier local traditions. In this period (AD1000-1476) after the collapse of Tiahuanaco. small warring states fought one another for supremacy. The most dynamic of these states was that of the Chimu, a confederation of dominions with its capital at Chan Chan in the Moche Valley, the empire of which expanded along the northern coast of Peru. Chimu art styles can be seen in monumental architecture, decorated with geometrical or figurative bas-reliefs. Ceramic art, usually black in colour, exhibits a repetition of themes. In contrast to the less developed ceramic style is the splendid metalwork, which reached a very skilful and advanced technical level in the manufacture of tumi (ceremonial knives), funeral masks, and orejeras (ear ornaments). The Chimu confederation declined with the rise of the Inca civilization. A small tribe from the valley of Cuzco that had always been struggling to survive, the Inca gradually but inexorably subjugated surrounding tribes and then expanded to create an empire that stretched from southern Colombia to central Chile. A territory of this size needed to be governed by an efficient state organization, and the bureaucratic mechanism established for this purpose took advantage of all the sociopolitical and technical structures already present in Andean society. While the art and architecture of the Inca was less elaborate and more functional, the skill and sophistication of the artists is still impressive. Their metallurgy was especially advanced: they introduced the technique of inlaying shortly before the Spanish invasion and developed a wide range of iconography, especially eagles and condors. The Inca were also renowned for the strength of their masonry - the tight-fitting rectangular stone blocks that characterize their buildings are incorporated into the foundations of modern buildings at Cuzco, the capital of the Inca.

Earthenware anthropomorphic bottle.
Vicus culture, southern Peru,
AD 100-400.

Black ceramic bottle.
Chavin culture, northern coast of Peru.





For centuries, one of the most enduring American myths has been that of Eldorado. It originated, not by chance, in Colombia. Here, goldwork was very highly developed, both in terms of technical proficiency and artistic originality. Colombia was also the site of many archaeological discoveries that revealed the presence of advanced cultures, such as the ceremonial centres of San Agustin and the underground tombs of Tierradentro. Gold, both in its pure state and as a copper alloy (tumbaga), was a prominent ingredient of its art. The metal, extracted from the mines or obtained by leaching from river water, was first used in about the second century BC. The Quimbaya, Tolima, and Calima cultures, more than any others, excelled in the quantity and quality of their production. The Valdivian culture (2300BC) of Ecuador was the first civilization in the entire American continent to use moulded terracotta for artistic purposes. From here on, the skill in the production of earthenware and realistic sculpture was to characterize each successive phase of the culture's development.

Gold anthropomorphic pendant.
Tolima culture, Colombia.

Golden box to hold limestone.
Qulmbaya culture, Colombia.



Polychrome earthenware
anthropomorphic bottle,
Nazca culture,
southern coast of Peru.



Between 400BC and AD55O, the culture of the Nazca people flourished in the oases of the coastal desert of southern Peru. They established a powerful centralized state that controlled several coastal valleys, where towns and ceremonial centres were built. The art of this people, often linked to religion, was distinctive mainly for its delicate pottery with polychrome designs. It is possible to trace the development of manufactured earthenware objects based on the diversity of these decorative motifs. At first, these consisted principally of naturalistic patterns: in addition to the emphasis on mythical figures and the presence of trophy heads, great prominence was given to zoomorphic subjects. The Nazca bestiary was extraordinarily varied: it included monkeys, snakes, felines, and. above all, fish and aquatic mammals, which were represented as particularly ferocious. Subsequently, motifs became more conventional and bombastic, with a prevalence of warlike themes. As Nazca culture declined, colours became less varied and motifs were endlessly repeated.

Polychrome cup, Nazca culture, southern coast of Peru.



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