While stone relief panels with this image decorate architectural structures at Tula, capital of the Toltec people in central Mexico, and at the Maya site of Chichén Itzá in Yucatan, this example of carved limestone was apparently found in the northern part of the Mexican state of Veracruz. It depicts a raptor in profile. The head is bent and the impressive bird pecks at a tri-lobed object held in a massive talon. The motif is believed to represent an eagle devouring a human heart. In ancient Mexican thought, eagles, soaring high into the sky, were symbols of the sun. The sun needed strength to survive the dangerous nightly journey through the darkness of the underworld, and then to rise again each morning. It was the obligation of human beings to provide nourishment for the sun's journey. That food was in the form of human hearts and blood.
This panel, along with another similar relief, was among the first Precolumbian Mexican objects to enter the Museum collection. The two reliefs were the gift of the well-known American painter Frederic Church in 1893.
Frederic Edwin Church, New York, 1892–1893
Easby, Elizabeth Kennedy, and John F. Scott. Before Cortez: Sculpture in Middle America. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970, Fig. 253.
Newton, Douglas, Julie Jones, and Kate Ezra. The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.