Low-relief carvings adorn two of the six sides of this fragmentary stone block. Its main motifs consist of a butterfly (left) and ilhuitl, or day sign, framed by plain rectangular bands. Similar designs appear on other Postclassic period (ca. 900–1521) monuments but are often arranged in bands along the exteriors of boxes or sacrificial vessels (cuauhxicalli). Called "celestial belts," these sequences of symbols (glyphs) are thought to have had astrological importance for the Nahua- and Mixtec-speakers of the Central and Southern Mexican Highlands.
Butterfly imagery enjoyed a long history in the arts of Mesoamerica and probably had multiple meanings and associations through time. In the Early Classic murals at Teotihuacan and Cholula, they are associated with warriors, fire, fertility, death, and rebirth. Among the Mixtecs and Aztecs of the Late Postclassic period (ca. 1300–1521), they adorn nosepieces and colorful feasting vessels as well as the sculptures of both male and female gods. As companions to Xochiquetzal ("Flower Quetzal") and Xochipilli ("Flower Prince"), they represent the themes of pleasure and abundance; yet with Itzpapalotl ("Obsidian Butterfly"), ravenous hunger and duplicity. Nevertheless, most scholars agree that Mesoamericans regarded butterflies as something akin to the soul—a belief that was also shared by the ancient Greeks and Hindus. Often found adorning ceramic incense burners—and typically appearing in funerary contexts—their associations with fire, regeneration, and respiration are clear. Furthermore, butterflies, along with hummingbirds and other winged beings, were closely related to concepts of reincarnation.
Interestingly, whereas moths are largely nocturnal insects, butterflies are diurnal and typically emerge from their cocoons at dawn. In fact, the Nahuatl word for cocoon (cochipilotl) derives from piloa ("pending") and cochi ("sleeper"), indicating a strong interest in the lifelessness that precedes a butterfly’s sudden, often ravenous re-animation. It is revealing, then, that the image of a butterfly should be paired on this monument with the ilhuitl symbol, as the latter signifies both "day" and "feast."
The relief carving on the top of this stone block, thought to represent lily pads or perhaps a type of mushroom, may be of colonial date. The repurposing of Aztec monolithic sculpture into columns or baptismal fonts was not uncommon in the early colonial period, as vast quantities of stone were needed to construct new churches and administrative buildings. Many such examples are found embedded in the architectural fabric of Mexico City even today.
William T. Gassaway, 2014-15 Sylvan C. Coleman and Pamela Coleman Fellow
Sources and Further Reading
Berlo, Janet C. "The Warrior and the Butterfly: Central Mexican Ideologies of Sacred Warfare and Teotihuacan Iconography." In Text and Image in Pre-Columbian Art, edited by Janet C. Berlo, pp. 79–117. BAR International Series 180. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Beutelspacher, Carlos R. Las mariposas entre los antiguos mexicanos. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988.
Houston, Stephen, and Karl Taube. "An Archaeology of the Senses: Perception and Cultural Expression in Ancient Mesoamerica." Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10, no. 2 (2000), pp. 261–94.
Pasztory, Esther. The Murals of Tepantitla, Teotihuacan. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1976. Concerning the meaning and appearance of butterfly imagery, see p. 157.
Peterson, Jeanette Favrot. The Paradise Garden Murals of Malinalco: Utopia and Empire in Sixteenth-Century Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993. Concerning the meaning and appearance of the ilhuitl sign, see pp. 47–50.
Louis Petich Collection, New York, before 1893, on loan to Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1894–1900