Stirrup Spout Bottle with Felines
Not on view
This stirrup-spout bottle, made by potters of Peru’s Moche culture between the 5th and 8th centuries A.D., depicts a series of felines proceeding up a spiral ramp. The spiral design is repeated on the spout along with two feline profile heads at the intersection of the three elements of the spout. Moche artists depicted animals with care and accuracy, thereby permitting the identification of these creatures as pampas cats—small, wild felines native to South America—based upon the stripes on their legs, body markings, and their bushy tails.
Felines, including pumas, jaguars, and pampas cats, are a favorite subject in Moche ceramics, wood, and metal work. These cats were the most powerful predators on Peru’s North Coast, territory governed by the Moche. The strength and agility of these mammals, as well as their ability to bring down much larger prey such as deer, may account for the numerous depictions of cats on objects meant to represent power and domination (see, for example, a gold headdress ornament in the Met’s collection, accession number 1979.206.1151). The parade of pampas cats on this vessel, however, is more difficult to interpret, especially in the absence of a written record contemporary to the vessel (alphabetic writing was not introduced in the Andes until the 16th century; prior to this, information was recorded using other methods such as knotted strings or khipus). A related vessel in the Met’s collection, accession number 63.226.13, also features felines ascending a spiral ramp, but in that example it is surmounted by an open-sided structure with a figure inside. Monumental spiral platforms are fairly rare in the archaeological record, but a notable example was excavated recently at the site of Moche, near Trujillo, Peru.
The stirrup-spout vessel—the shape of the spout recalls the stirrup on a horse's saddle—was a much-favored form on Peru's North Coast for about 2,500 years. Although the importance and symbolism of this distinctive shape is still puzzling to scholars, the double-branch/single-spout configuration may have prevented evaporation of liquids, and/or may have provided a convenient handle. Early in the first millennium A.D., the Moche elaborated stirrup-spout bottles into sculptural shapes depicting a wide range of subjects, including human figures, animals, and plants worked with a great deal of naturalism. About 500 years later, bottle chambers became predominantly globular, as in the vessel pictured above, providing large surfaces for painting. The style of painting on this vessel is known as “fineline,” so named for the detailed compositions delicately painted in red slip (a suspension of clay and/or other colorants in water) on a white background (Donnan and McClelland, 1999).
The Moche (also known as the Mochicas) flourished on Peru’s North Coast from A.D. 200–850, centuries before the rise of the Incas (Castillo, 2017). Over the course of some six centuries, the Moche built thriving regional centers from the Nepeña River Valley in the south to perhaps as far north as the Piura River, near the modern border with Ecuador, developing coastal deserts into rich farmlands and drawing upon the abundant maritime resources of the Pacific Ocean’s Humboldt Current. Although the precise nature of Moche political organization is a subject of debate, these centers shared unifying cultural traits such as religious practices (Donnan, 2010).
References and Further Reading
Castillo, Luis Jaime. “Masters of the Universe: Moche Artists and Their Patrons.” In Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017, pp. 24–31.
Donnan, Christopher B. “Moche State Religion.” In New Perspectives on Moche Political Organization, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and Luis Jaime Castillo. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010.
Donnan, Christopher B. and Donna McClelland. Moche Fineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1999.
Meneses, Jorge. “Huacas de Moche: Revealing Death and Ritual in the Shadow of the Pyramids.” Current World Archeology vol. 67 (2014), pp. 18–25.
Sawyer, Alan Reed. Ancient Peruvian Ceramics: The Nathan Cummings Collection. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1966.
Wassermann-San Blás, Bruno John. Céramicas del Antiguo Perú de la Colección Wassermann-San Blás. Buenos Aires: Bruno John Wassermann-San Blás, 1938, no. 16, p. 12.