FRAME|WORK: A ceremonial knife from Mexico

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature a spectacular obsidian ceremonial knife from Mesoamerica on display at the de Young.


Ceremonial knife, ca. 1200–1500. Mexico, Alta Highlands, Mixtec. Obsidian, turquoise, spondylus shell and resin. Gift of Lauren and Patrick Hallinan. 2007.97.3

Very few examples of Mixtec mosaic work are known; a small group of such works resides in the British Museum. The mosaic technique has been used since very early times in Mesoamerica but it was most highly developed among the Mixtec people of Oaxaca and later by the Aztecs. The Mixtec presided over large territories throughout Mexico prior to and during the reign of the Aztecs. When the Aztecs gained ascendency, many Mixtec towns paid tribute to the centralized rulers while simultaneously maintianing their independence. Among their many artistic accomplishments, the Mixtec also developed an elaborate pictorial language, which can be viewed and even read in the few Mixtec codices (or books) that survive from the pre-Hispanic era.

The backing for mosaic objects was usually wood, but artists could also use bone, stone or pottery as a framework. A vegetable gum or tree resin kept the valuable tesserae (small squares) in place. Most often turquoise was used to create the mosaic, but artists might also include pieces of malachite, shell (such as coral-colored spondylus) or other stones. Turquoise was imported into the Valley of Mexico from the far south and the north, perhaps even from as far north as what is now New Mexico. The turquoise color symbolized water, rain gods and sky, and the stone was considered very precious.

The detailed two-sided handle of the knife depicts a parrot or a macaw in profile. These majestic birds with their powerful beaks and wide wingspans are thought to have been military symbols or insignia of war, an appropriate emblem for such a weapon. Additionally, macaws were highly esteemed for their beautiful feathers and ability to fly.

This extraordinary implement is currently on view in the Art of the Americas wing in Gallery 4 at the de Young!

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