Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Feline Altar

1st century B.C.–A.D. 1st century
Mexico, Mesoamerica, Chiapas (?)
H. 20 x W. 24 1/2 x D. 32 1/4 in. (50.8 x 62.2 x 81.9 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1963
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 358
This large relief sculpture of a feline was carved from an irregular boulder of volcanic stone. It most likely depicts a jaguar or a puma, the two largest predators in the New World. In this representation the feline lays back its ears and bares its claws as it seemingly jumps forward. Below the deep eye sockets is a mouth caught mid-snarl. The nose flares as the feline exposes its teeth and extends its ridged tongue.

Sculptors carved images in bas relief on large stones such as this in the highlands and Pacific slope of what are now Chiapas, Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador throughout the Late Preclassic period (ca. 300 B.C. – A.D. 250). The artist preserved as much of the stone as possible with shallow relief. The fact that the artist left most of the boulder in its natural state, that is, did not try to carve the feline in the round or make it symmetrical, underlines the importance of the stone itself as a material. Great lengths and efforts were directed into deeply gouging the eye sockets of the feline image. These holes may have once held polished chunks of obsidian or another material to animate the sculpture so that it might gaze out upon the community with shiny eyes.

Mesoamerican societies revered big cats as the preeminent killers in nature. Kings and queens wore their pelts, made regalia out of their claws and teeth, and incorporated words for felines into their royal names. Sculptures such as this may have been place markers or heraldic emblems of important families or political groups.

James A. Doyle, Ph.D.
[Stendahl Gallery, Los Angeles, by 1957]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1957, on loan to Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1957–1963; Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1963–1978

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 548.

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