Dualism in Andean Art

  • Pectoral
  • Pair of Bowls, Trophy-Head Deities
  • Two Drums
  • Pair of Spouted Bottles
  • Bottle, Skeletal Couple with Child
  • Fox Warrior Bottle
  • Feline Bottle
  • Tunic
  • Ceremonial Knife (tumi)
  • Pair of Keros


The fundamental complementarity between life and death was a central component of the cosmology of many Andean societies, shaping ideologies and influencing social organizations. In states and empires of the first millennium, the power of rulers in the world of the living originated from the ancestors populating the world of the dead. Other opposing ideas, such as male and female, left and right, night and day, sun and moon, or mountain peaks and valleys, also defined religious beliefs and practices.

Dualism is deeply rooted in Andean artistic traditions. Excavations in a mud brick monumental platform dating from the Preceramic period (3000–1800 B.C.) revealed that early woven textiles were decorated with zoomorphic creatures paired in inverted symmetries. As early as 1000 B.C. in the northern Cordillera, the first figurative hammered gold ornaments made by the Chavín people present similar compositions of profile animal heads in mirror images (1999.365). Chavín architecture also includes conceptual and visual dualism. The temple of the ceremonial center Chavín de Huantar is adorned with a massive half-white, half-black staircase flanked by engraved columns. The column on the black north side shows a male anthropomorphized bird, while the opposite one on the white south side shows its female counterpart.

Pairs, doubles, and visual oppositions are noticeable in portable arts of most cultures throughout Andean prehistory and reflect the prominence of symbolic dualism in religions, ritual performances, and social order. Finely woven textiles were privileged means of expressing complex messages and often feature paired, opposite, and inverted images that create a visual dualism. For example, tunics produced by Wari weavers (400–1000), show repeated pairs of mirror images going through a complex process of geometricization (1979.206.394). Anthropomorphized felines, birds, and geometric patterns are inverted left to right, upside down, or both. In the textile art of the north and central coast, symmetrical compositions often depict catfish (29.146.23). A geometricized version of the same creature, organized into mirrored compositions, also adorns murals of Moche monumental platforms at the sites of Moche and El Brujo. Catfish live in the muddy bottom of water streams, where they cannot easily be seen. Coastal societies associated these animals with the world of the dead, which was considered as an inverted, nocturnal, underground, or underwater realm.

Andean artists who created elaborate metal objects sometimes exploited the contrasting colors of silver and gold to produce a visual effect of symmetry and dualism. According to an Inka belief, silver came from the moon, a female entity, and gold came from the sun, its male opposite. A millennium earlier, the complementarity between silver and gold was used by Moche people (1–800 A.D.). At the site of Sipán, members of the religious or military elite were buried with sumptuous body adornments, masks, and ceremonial weapons made of precious materials such as gold, silver, copper, spondylus shells, turquoise, and colorful feathers. Some of these funerary offerings, which were probably once worn in life, are half-silver, half-gold along a longitudinal axis. In their tombs, the Lords of Sipán wore necklaces, nose ornaments, and backflaps made of silver on one side and gold on the opposite side. This bichrome effect is often depicted in Moche ceramics decorated with fineline scenes in which warriors wear half-white, half-red backflaps, tunics, and headdresses (82.1.29). The visual dualism of silver and gold was also used by Sicán artists (800–1250), who produced ceremonial tumi knives embellished with gold effigies and turquoise incrustations (1974.271.60).

In addition to textiles and metal objects, ceramic vessels express symbolic dualism, often in more subtle ways. On the south coast, Paracas and Nazca potters occasionally produced pairs of identical vessels (63.232.79, 1976.287.31; 1992.60.6,.7). In Moche society, the spiritual complementarity between life and death is illustrated through sculpted ceramic vessels, some of which show dead and/or living women engaged in sexual intercourse with skeletal men (1978.412.196). Scholars suggest that the diversity of nonfertile sexual acts depicted on these vessels destined to be placed in burials symbolizes the inverted fertility in the world of the dead. In Moche religion, nocturnal animals like bats and owls, as well as plants and creatures living underground like tubers, peanuts, and arachnids, were also related to death and the afterlife. Night, and spaces under the surface of the sea or the ground, were considered as realms opposed to the world of the living. Moche tridimensional vessels in the shape of anthropomorphic peanuts or potatoes often show the skeletal faces of dead individuals.

Finally, in the Inka empire (1470–1532) and in later times, artists always produced wooden beakers (keros) in pairs. Keros were kept and used in pairs to drink chicha, the sacred corn beer (1994.35.15,.16). Pairs of identical “brother keros” symbolized the dual organization of the Inka sociopolitical system in which each hierarchical level included two complementary moieties. Subtly or clearly expressed in art, opposite doubles and mirror images reflect the ancient heritage of symbolic dualism in the ideologies, world visions, and social structures of Andean people.

Hélène Bernier
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

June 2009


Bernier, Hélène. “Dualism in Andean Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dual/hd_dual.htm (June 2009)

Further Reading

Bourget, Steve. Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Platt, Tristan. "Mirrors and Maize: The Concept of Yanatin among the Macha of Bolivia." Anthropological History of Andean Polities, edited by John V. Murra, Nathan Wachel, and Jacques Revel, pp. 228–59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.