Figure Vessel

16th century (?)
Mexico, Mesoamerica, Veracruz
H. 13 1/2 x W. 10 x D. 7 1/2 in. (34.3 x 25.4 x 19.1 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1965
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 358
This vessel depicts a nude, pear-shaped male figure in a squatting position with both hands raised to either side of his large head. His fingers, indicated by incisions and paint, touch to form an "O" and each palm is pierced with a small hole. Covered with a base layer of yellow-buff slip, his corpulent, almost infantile body is decorated with an array of dark maroon lines, circles, and scalloped motifs representing body paint or tattoos. Like an animal seated on its haunches, the figure’s stout thighs and paw-like feet are drawn close to his flanks, framing his round belly and modeled genitalia.

Viewed from the front, the vessel’s curved face obscures much of the open neck and short, shoulder-mounted spout of the jug. As the viewer approaches, however, the back edge of the central void gradually appears to fill the holes of his slackened mouth and hollow orbits, creating the illusion that the figure’s eyes roll backward in an ecstatic, trance-like state.

Originally, this figural vessel would have been used to store and pour liquids. As various colonial accounts attest, the Huastec peoples regularly ingested a fermented drink known in the Nahuatl language as octli (Span. pulque). Made from the maguey plant, octli was sometimes strengthened with morning glory seeds and psychotropic roots to increase its intoxicating effects. As historical accounts and archaeological findings attest, this beverage was central to the pervasive pulque cult that originated along the Gulf Coast of Mexico and quickly spread throughout the Central Mexican highlands during the Postclassic period (A.D. 900–1521). Depictions of individuals imbibing the drink are featured, for example, in Late Classic ball court reliefs from the site of El Tajín (north-central Veracruz) as well as in a number of Aztec stone sculptures depicting its divine patrons. Often these images incorporate lunar iconography such as rabbits or feature deities whose mouths are "stained" black or purple, as can be seen in this figure’s coloration.

William T. Gassaway, 2014–15 Sylvan C. Coleman and Pamela Coleman Fellow


Published References

De la Fuente, Beatriz, et al. México en el mundo de las colecciones de arte. 2 vols. México: Grupo Azabache, 1994. Photograph, p. 233.

Resources and Additional Reading

Diehl, Richard A. "Death Gods, Smiling Faces and Colossal Heads: Archaeology of the Mexican Gulf Lowlands." Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., n.d.

Faust, Katherine A., and Kim N. Richter, eds. The Huasteca: Culture, History, and Interregional Exchange. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.

Kerr, Justin. The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, Vol. 2. New York: Kerr Associates, 1997.

Nicholson, Henry B. "The Octli Cult in Late Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico," in To Change Place: Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes, edited by Davíd Carrasco, 158–187. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1991.

Pool, Christopher A. "Current Research on the Gulf Coast of Mexico." Journal of Anthropological Research 14, no. 3 (September 2006): 189–241.
[Judith Small Galleries, New York, until 1965]; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1965–1978

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. 608.

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 162.

Newton, Douglas. "The art of Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas." Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fall 1981), p. 30.

Solís Olguín, Felipe. Mexico en el mundo de las colecciones de arte: Mesoamerica, edited by Maria Luisa Sabau Garcia. Vol. vol.1. Mexico: D.R. Primera, 1994, p. 233.