Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

La Venta: Stone Sculpture

La Venta’s large stone sculpture was made of basalt from the Tuxtla Mountains far to the north. The Olmec transported these massive basalt boulders by means of the region’s meandering rivers, where they were used for thrones, altars, stelae, and colossal heads. These heads, striking in their individuality, are thought to depict the ancient rulers. Distinct headdresses adorn each head, underscoring their different personalities. La Venta’s rulers oversaw a burgeoning economy that included trade in exotic materials such as greenstones, much of which was buried in the elaborate offerings of Complex A. The site’s ceremonial architecture is notable for use of local materials. Complex A, in particular, was the scene of four construction phases marked by the use of local clays and sands in a variety of colors.

In addition to the three-dimensional colossal heads, Olmec sculptors carved stelae and thrones with a mixture of low- and high-relief techniques. The stelae depict rulers in elaborate ritual garb, often surrounded by “flying” figures—perhaps depictions of ancestors conjured in the ruler’s visions. The thrones, identified also as altars, often have a large central niche carved in the base. In La Venta Altar 4, a carved figure emerges from the niche, which symbolizes a cave. A ruler, he wears an eagle headdress establishing his ability to emulate predators of the sky, and he holds a rope in his hands. The rope winds around the base of the throne to a bound captive. The motifs surrounding the throne’s upper band recall jaguars and mythical dragons, powerful images in Olmec ideology.