This vessel originated at Teotihuacan, a major urban development and complex culture located in central Mexico. The work integrates five globular ceramic jars, four of them positioned peripherally to form a square footprint, the fifth centered and hovering slightly above its counterparts. Together, the jars form a five-lobed shape known as a quincunx, a symbol of great cosmological importance for Mesoamerican religions. Trace amounts of pigment coat the interiors of each of the jars, revealing the vessel’s use as a painter’s pallet. These pigments maintain exceptional brightness and clarity, which suggests that either the object was used only once or twice or, as will be argued here, that the painter who used the pallet carefully ensured that each color of pigment was routinely allocated to its assigned jar.
The object’s bright orange-red coloration and wall thinness are diagnostic of the Teotihuacan “Thin Orange” ceramic tradition, which thrived in the latter half of the Early Classic period (ca. A.D. 200 – 600). This type of ceramic is notable for its technical and visual refinement as well as its frequent appearance in archaeological contexts beyond the Teotihuacan city limits. “Thin Orange” was manufactured east of Teotihuacan in the region of Puebla, but its distribution was controlled by the city. In the present vessel, the ceramicist joined the lower four jars with pairs of solid struts that extend radially ninety degrees from the midpoints of each jar body. The fifth jar attaches to the lower jars with four modest applications of slip, viscous clay paste, at a point bisecting, though slightly above, the angles of the connecting struts. Short vertical walls serve as lips projecting from each jar on which the artist appears to have refined the tip of her/his brush or stylus before painting.
The deliberate maintenance of separation between pigments numbered among the most desired attributes of successful tlacuilo, “painter-scribes,” of the Mexica-Tenochca (“Aztecs”), an inheritor culture of Teotihuacan in central Mexico. The 16th century Spaniard friar Bernardino de Sahagún recorded of tlacuilo:
The scribe: writings, ink [are] his special skills. [He is] a craftsman, an artist...a painter who dissolves colors, grinds pigments, uses colors. The good scribe is honest, circumspect, far-sighted, pensive; a judge of colors, an applier of the colors...creates works of art. The bad scribe [is] dull, detestable, irritating—a fraud, a cheat. He paints without luster, ruins colors, blurs them, paints askew—acts impetuously, hastily, without reflection (Sahagún 1974-82: 1: 54, emphasis mine).
By Sahagún’s account, central Mexican painter-scribes attached not only aesthetic preference to the careful maintenance of boundaries between pigments but also saw this behavior as according with high moral rectitude. By contrast, a painter who blurred pigments committed a grave personal failure that carried the potential of injuring society through the disruption of a broader cosmic order. That the present vessel presents controlled pigment management within the lobes of a quincunx suggests that a progenitor of this 16th century moral sentiment also existed at Teotihuacan a millennium earlier.
The quincunx was a religiously potent symbol within Teotihuacan society. Though quincunx designs took on diverse associations throughout Mesoamerica, their most common meaning in central Mexico was “space-time.” The Mexica-Tenochca used the term cahuitl, literally the “space of time,” to convey this concept, which numbered among the central animating esoteric religious beliefs of Mesoamerica. The importance of the quincunx as a signifier of cahuitl is apparent at Teotihuacan, where architects erected a building with a floorplan in the shape of a quincunx on the most privileged building site of this planned city. This structure, known as the Temple of the Altars, serves as the termination/origin point for a three-mile causeway called the Avenue of the Dead that organizes the whole of the Teotihuacan city plan. The space of his avenue was pre-measured by indigenous architects to encode space with numbers reflective of increments of time regarded as sacred in Mesoamerica. Additionally, at around 50 locations throughout the Teotihuacan city plan, archaeologists documented pecked petroglyphs in the form of quincunxes made from arrangements of 260 dots, corresponding with the number of days in the Mesoamerican ritual calendar. Architects likely used these petroglyphic quincunxes to calculate building orientations in accord with astronomical alignments that reflected the city’s master plan. Together, the Temple of the Altars, Avenue of the Dead and pecked petroglyphic quincunxes demonstrate that Teotihuacanos were preoccupied with cahuitl, which they represented through the quincunx.
Previous scholarship notes the similarities between the quincunxes found in Teotihuacan architecture and the opening folio of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, an indigenous 15th century painted book. This image shows a quincunx formed of 260 dots at the center of which stands the deity Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking Mirror”). The four additional primary lobes of this complex quincunx are distinguished by their spatial orientations—corresponding with the cardinal directions—, specified patron deities or natural forces, and, most importantly for the present discussion, distinct colors. While this book demonstrates that central Mexicans valued the presentation of clear color orientations in finished artworks, the pigment residues in the present vessel imply that this controlled color orientation was valued by painter-scribes from the very conception of the painting process. Before brush ever touched paper, the painter-scribe who owned this object allocated her/his pigments in accord with a pre-existing social code that reflected the astronomical and religious orientation of the metropolis at large.
Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow, 2017–2018
Sahagún, Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1978 – 82.
Boone, Elizabeth Hill. Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008. Conides, Cynthia. Made to Order: Painted Ceramics of Ancient Teotihuacan. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018.
Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. “Summary: Cities as Cosmological Art: The Art of Politics.” In The Art of Urbanism: How Mesoamerican Kingdoms Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery, edited by William L. Fash and Leonardo López Luján. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2009.
Reents-Budet, Dorie. Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.
Robb, Matthew. Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.