Central American Art and Sculpture

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Atlantic Watershed Ceramic Vases

While the Maya are commonly regarded as the southeastern end of the Mesoamerican culture area, Mesoamerican elements did extend well across Central America, such as Manguean languages and ceramic vessels. The Central American peoples were actively exchanging traditions from as far as Central Mexico to South America as well as forming their own distinct local styles, like the examples featured on this page. These two bowls are from the Atlantic Watershed region of eastern Costa Rica. They stand on tripods modeled after animals from their environment, as shown with the iguanas forming the legs for the bowl at right. The bowl at left has a fascinating reticulated pattern.

Worcester Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts

Coclé Stingray Bowl

Traders and immigrants were carrying ceramic styles from Mexico as well as the Andes, yet the Central American tribes also created their own fashions for the medium. This bowl uses lavender, ochre, cream, and black in simple shapes to produce a remarkable design, a square curved into concave shape with rounded edges, all made to resemble a spotted stingray. While I am familiar with stingray spines used for bloodletting sacrificial rites, I cannot say for certain that this meaning pertains to the fish represented here.

American Museum of Natural History

Stone Sculptures of Costa Rica

In many respects the societies of Costa Rica resembled the earlier Olmec civilization from the southern Gulf of Mexico: complex chiefdoms, supernatural imagery, stone sculpture, and evidence of shamanic spirituality. Among the more intriguing details in these stone pieces are the coupled figures, such as those seated atop the tall surface to the left and the small sculpture at bottom right. They could reference a pair of twins from a myth, given how many Mesoamerican myths have referenced Hero Twins, as in Oaxaca, Central Mexico, and most famously the Popol Vuh epic from the K'ichee' Maya of Guatemala.
At center is another curious figure, who could depict a prominent chief or shaman. The skin is etched to resemble reptile scales, and the headpiece is itself a large coiled serpent.

American Museum of Natural History

Metate Grinding Stones

Common across Mesoamerica, the metate is a flat grinding surface carved from soft volcanic stone. It is one of Mesoamerica's earliest and most enduring inventions, and many indigenous peoples continue to use it to grind soft maize kernels into dough for tortillas and tamales.
In Costa Rica, however, many metates were exceptionally large and ornate. They were carved from single pieces of stone into elegant works, and almost all of them bear animal imagery such as the flying bird beneath the surface at left and the streaked jaguar at right. These must have been made for ritual purposes, and one interpretation is that they were used to crush and prepare blends from hallucinogenic plants, toward shamanic rites and experiences.

Worcester Art Museum

Nicoya Ceramic Vessels

Located toward Costa Rica's northwest corner, the Nicoya peninsula had chiefdoms that created a variety of fine works: jade pendants, elaborate metates (similar to those presented above), and ceramic vases. Many of these vases alluded to powerful animals or mythic beings. Across the Americas the jaguar was revered as a formidable predator and magical creature, related notably to the shaman's ability to project his or her consciousness into other worlds. A squatting jaguar snarls toward us in the Nicoya vase on the left. At right is an incense burner capped with the delicate rendition of a mythic crocodile. For the Maya and many other Mesoamerican cultures, the earth's surface was upon the back of a great reptile adrift in the ocean; the turtle or the crocodile were the most common creatures in question. Scaly patterns twisting down the cap seem to also recall the crocodile's complexion, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Museum of Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ulua Bowl

Two sneering jaguars form the handles to this speckled marble bowl, and their limbs seem to emerge from the thick clouds defined by the rolling whorl patterns around the vase's center. This bowl comes from the Ulua River, which opens into the Caribbean near Honduras' northwest corner (toward the border with Guatemala). Because it was near the southeastern edge of the Maya land, it is not surprising to find Maya influences in the local art. Copan, one of the most important cities of the Classic Period Maya, was the closest Mesoamerican site to the Ulua delta. In later centuries this river would become a major trading zone for travelers from Yucatán, west Guatemala, and the length of Central America.

Metropolitan Museum of Art