Several years ago I saw an exhibition of Aztec art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Having lived in Central America, I looked forward to seeing both familiar objects as well as new ones. But the show far exceeded my expectations. The Mexican government staged a lavish and unprecedented display of unimaginably high quality sculptures, carvings, pottery and jewelry never seen by the public.
Culture in Latin America is serious business. Wealthy patrons and government elite spare no expense to show off their repositories of ancient and indigenous fine art. Mexico’s vast treasures stem from the richest gold and silver mines in the world. The reason Aztec art is so stunning is the elaborate detail in everything from wall-sized panels to fist-sized jewelry. The highest quality, in my view, belongs to the Mixtecs, who flourished from 900 to 1200 AD, moving into and renovating abandoned Zapotec towns and temples in the northern region of what is now the state of Oaxaca.
The Mixtec originated in rainy mountains above the isthmus that tapers southeastern Mexico and eventually becomes Guatemala. Abundant wildlife and vegetation found in rainforests are moderated by high elevation and uneven terrain. Still, coyotes, jaguars, monkeys, as well as all types of insects appear in their imagery. A small group, not frequently successful in conquest, the Mixtec kept a low profile, living in small villages scattered across the high valleys, away from the main action. Their art is less frenzied, more subdued and meditative than that of their warlike neighbors. Indeed, their predecessors, the Zapotec, are famous in anthropology circles for their uniquely harmonious and ethical society, which the Mixtec appear to have inherited. Their art objects didn’t need to scare anyone; they could exist on their own terms, so to speak, more natural and relaxed. Mixtec sculptors created many images of the reclining coyote, with his head turned 90° toward the viewers, as if inviting conversation. They also carved monkeys with gentle, even demure, expressions oddly reminiscent of Zira in ‘Planet of the Apes’. The finest piece was a large, exquisite pendant of a bat’s head, made entirely of hammered and threaded gold. The artist captured the basic anatomy perfectly but, in order not to frighten anyone, he enlarged the eyes, shortened the ears and rounded the head to make it appear almost friendly. Yet there remains the tension of the mouth and teeth, so well rendered that one can imagine its powerful bite. This extraordinary object is only about 2 inches high by 3 inches wide. Except for a tiny wooden “afterlife” boat an Egyptian pharaoh had carved for his slaves in astonishing detail, with its human cargo and provisions—everyone all set to go—no ancient artifact has ever delighted me more.
A friend once lived and worked in the 1970s on one of Arizona’s few remaining gold mines. He showed me around the horrid, onerous work. It was an awful place. To this day, I wonder how the early alchemists and their priestly associates could have missed this point: Why would anyone want to turn gold into gold, much less lead into gold? I understand and appreciate that there is far more lead than gold. However, gold mining is a nasty, dreadful business, and it must have been even more so a thousand years ago. It looks like stiff mud. Of course, gold is beautiful, brilliant, lustrous and loved by women. However, so is gardening . . .
Alchemy was a “science of the soul”, a middle ages version of psychotherapy, and an eccentric gentleman’s intellectual pursuit. It came as close to magic as theologians would allow. Its symbols laid the foundation for much fine art, then and even well into the twentieth century. Some consider it the forerunner to modern chemistry, but I’m not sure, since there was no real or practical value. However, the foundation of alchemy—and much of religion itself—is the annual miracle of plant growth. All of the ancient Near Eastern religions that became much of the foundation of our society’s spiritual heritage, began as seasonal fertility cults. Weather and soil gods, relating to the cycle of pastoral, and later harvested, plant crops, dominated religious life. Angry and mysterious, they were supplicated to bring the rain so the earth would turn green, to protect the plants from drought, disease and insects, so that they would flourish and feed the people and livestock. In short, to turn lead into gold.