Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Eagle Transformation Figure, 10th–6th century b.c.
    Mexico; Olmec
    Jade (albitite), cinnabar; H. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm)
    Rogers Fund, 1994 (1994.380)

    This small, carved greenstone sculpture possesses both human and animal attributes, suggesting that it is a transformation figure. While maintaining an overall semblance of human anatomy, the figure's greatly enlarged head combines human and avian features, with bulging birdlike eyes separated by a plume extending up past the forehead, human ears, a human nose topping a hooked beak, and a small beard on the chin. Some scholars interpret this object as a depiction of a man wearing an animal mask. Others, through the use of ethnographic analogy, have suggested that such figures are representations of a shaman's transfiguration into his nahual, or powerful animal counterpart. It is believed that, in this altered state, a shaman is able to interact with the spirit world and use his abilities to heal, punish, or predict the future. Although interpretations of this object may vary, the incorporation of animal attributes into the human figure strongly suggests that the Olmec held the animals in their environment in special regard and perhaps sought to harness the power of these creatures for personal use.

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    On view: Gallery 358
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    Eagle Transformation Figure, 10th–6th century b.c.
    Mexico; Olmec
    Jade (albitite), cinnabar; H. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm)
    Rogers Fund, 1994 (1994.380)


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