A shimmering saint, St. John in featherwork

Saint John the Evangelist, 17th century, feather mosaic and paper on copper (Collection of Daniel Liebsohn, loaned to Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City)


Additional resources

Read more about New Spain

Read more about featherworks from New Spain

Learn more about Mexica featherwork

Teresa Castelló Yturbide and Manuel Cortina Portilla, The Art of Featherwork in Mexico (Mexico: Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., 1993).

Alessandra Russo, Gerhard Wolf, and Diana Fane, eds., Images take flight: Feather art in Mexico and Europe 1400–1700 (Munich: Hirmer, 2015).

Maya Stanfield-Mazzi, “Featherwork,” in Clothing the New World Church: Liturgical Textiles of Spanish America, 1520–1820, 1st ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021), pp. 115–74.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re in the National Museum of Art in Mexico City, looking at a small image of Saint John made out of feathers.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:13] This featherwork, which was popular in the 16th century in New Spain, is a technique that was practiced prior to the conquest among peoples like the Aztecs and was very highly regarded and revered.

Dr. Harris: [0:26] Feathers were part of Indigenous art. We can think of the amazing iridescence of feathers. It makes sense that they would be an important material for artists.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:36] Think of the feathered headdress that’s in the collections in Vienna that reportedly belonged to Moctezuma II.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] Usually when you think about feathers, you think about something that can move, like on a headdress, something that adds to the movement of the wearer and flickers in the light. But here, it’s applied to a piece of wood, we can’t see through it, and yet there’s still a tremendous amount of iridescence.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:58] Featherworkers prior to the conquest by the Spaniards were called amanteca. After the Spanish conquest in 1521, the Spaniards were so impressed by this technique that these featherworkers continued to make these objects, but with Christian subject matter. It’s true this remarkable technique of gluing feathers to a board is akin to a mosaic.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] Or a stained-glass window. The feathers act with the light very much the way that glass does or the way that precious stones do.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:27] As we’re standing here in the gallery, we’re looking at four different featherworks. If you bend down or try to stand above it, the colors change, the shimmer changes. It really captures nicely this iridescent, luminous quality of the featherwork.

Dr. Harris: [1:41] We know that this is Saint John because he holds a chalice. He’s got his right hand up in a gesture of blessing, and he’s got this huge halo around his head. There’s this border of geometric and floral motifs that almost does look like inlaid stone or inlaid gems.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:57] The brilliance of the halo, the gold of the chalice, is comparing to the brilliance of the feathers themselves. This idea of heaven and the glory of God as being colorful and luminescent is captured here in this material.

Dr. Harris: [2:08] The communication of the heavenly and the divine realm through the preciousness, through the luminosity of feathers.

[2:14] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "A shimmering saint, St. John in featherwork," in Smarthistory, January 24, 2022, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/a-shimmering-saint-st-john-in-featherwork/.