Feline-Head Bottle

Feline-Head Bottle, 15th-5th century B.C.E., Cupisnique, Jequetepeque Valley (possibly Tembladera), Peru, ceramic and post-fired paint, 32.4 x 20.5 x 13.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Speakers: Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Steven Zucker


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the gallery devoted to pre-Colombian art. We’re looking at a ceramic vase from South America, from the area that is now the nation of Peru.

[0:14] What’s interesting is that when we think of pre-Colombian cultures from South America, we generally think of the Inka. That was the culture that was dominant when the Spanish arrived. But art had been made and people had lived in this area for thousands of years before that. We’re looking at an object that may be as old as 3,500 years.

Dr. Sarahh Scher: [0:31] It is a bottle that was made by a group of people whose name we don’t really know. We refer to them instead by a general style category of Cupisnique. This particular one is from the Jequetepeque Valley on the coast of Peru.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] Cupisnique refers to a style that came before a culture that we have more confidence about, that is Chavin.

Dr. Scher: [0:51] What used to be thought was that Chavin was what we would call a mother culture. Anything that was found in a style that reminded us of Chavin was some kind of Chavin. Now we know that this is actually something that is part of the development of that style prior to Chavin, and Chavin is the culmination of that development.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] This is such a good reminder that art history is something that is always growing.

Dr. Scher: [1:15] These cultures were oral cultures. They were not cultures that developed writing, it wasn’t important to them, and so we instead have to rely on archaeological information to help us place these styles in their proper temporal context.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] It also helps us when we look closely at the object. It helps us identify things that might be otherwise mysterious if you see lots of examples of the same kind of form, the same kind of animal face. We see here, in fact, several animal faces.

Dr. Scher: [1:41] And that’s part of the idea of this style as it was developing. It relies on combining multiple points of view together in one image. What we see is something that is meant to distinguish whether or not you’re a member of the group.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] If you could read it, you belonged.

Dr. Scher: [1:56] Absolutely. If you don’t belong, you’re not going to be able to understand its mystical imagery.

Dr. Zucker: [2:01] The easiest thing for me to read is the right-hand side. You see a thinning of the clay and the representation of a feline face. You can just see a fang, you can see an eye, perhaps a ridge above the head, a snout, and then perhaps some fur that comes down below the neck.

Dr. Scher: [2:19] Very hard to tell. These animal forms are sometimes so generalized that all we can say is, “It’s feline,” “It’s reptilian,” that sort of thing.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] Then, if you imagine that the vessel is then tipped over on its side so that it can pour, another face emerges, the face of another feline. You can see a large eye that seems to be looking upward. You can see this snout that curls around and shows us that the fur is spotted, and just below that, more teeth and more fangs.

Dr. Scher: [2:51] There’s so many fangs that I’m questioning whether that’s actually meant to be a set of feline fangs and might instead be the fangs of a caiman. Caiman are similar to alligators and crocodiles; very fearsome, very dangerous.

[3:03] They did not actually live in the areas where these things were being made, they were more legendary predators from the lands beyond the mountains and the jungle.

Dr. Zucker: [3:11] Might have had a mythic quality, even in this era.

Dr. Scher: [3:15] Absolutely. What you noted, that eye with the black pupil looking up, we refer to that as a pendant iris because it’s hanging from the top of the eye, and that again is something that we see in Chavin.

[3:26] Originally, people thought, “Well, that must mean that these people are looking at Chavin style and making Chavin-derivative art.” Instead, it turns out they were making what would become Chavin.

Dr. Zucker: [3:36] There’s another bit of clay that wings out and that can be read as the tongue of the large face, but when the vessel is placed back on the table, that almost functions as the tail of the reptilian or feline creature that we saw on the right, except that this is made even more complex because we notice that there’s a large eye in the upper left that reorients us yet again.

Dr. Scher: [3:57] Even then, what we just saw as a tongue and possibly a tail, if we look at the eye in one direction, it might be an ear.

Dr. Zucker: [4:04] I love this idea that we see a multiplicity of forms that become more or less dominant depending on the orientation of the vessel.

Dr. Scher: [4:12] This is something that is for ritual purposes. We know that it was painted after being fired rather than before being fired, which means it has a very delicate surface. It’s not something you’re going to use for everyday wear — this is the good stuff — and the imagery is part of that. This creation of what some people have interpreted as being a shamanic vision, a mystical vision of the world beyond our world, where powerful spirit animals are the rulers.

[4:40] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Feline-Head Bottle," in Smarthistory, September 25, 2016, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/feline-bottle/.