Polychrome Ceramic Vessel

Nazca Culture, 8th c., Peru

This ceramic collection from South America consists of 80 artefacts from civilisations of Mesoamerica, Ecuador and Peru.

In 2015, it was shown for the first time in the newly opened permanent exposition of the National Gallery at Kvadrat 500. There is no other museum on the Balkans with such a diverse collection of pre-Columbian art.

Prior to the Great Inca Empire (13th–16th c.), and in the period from the 1st century BC until the middle of the 8th century AD in the southern part of today’s Peru, the Nazca culture developed.

The so-called agricultural cult occupied a central place in its ritual system by. In such a desert region, fertility rituals were a necessity. The fertility of the land was analogous to that of the woman, hence the female image gave expression to the concept of continual renewal and abundance in nature.

This vessel from the National Gallery’s collection belongs to the quality examples of painted ceramics of the Nazca Prolifero period (‘prolific’, from Spanish ‘prolifero’). The globular jug with a small spout and a bridge-type handle measures 15 cm x 15 cm x 15 cm. Multiple images appear on it: a woman, a mythological creature and a jaguar; and the polychromy is the result of combining seven colours.

The silhouette of the woman follows that of the jug and is remarkable for the specific hairstyle, facial expression and foreshortening of the hands. She is bearing fruits as gifts. Beside her is an image of the orca—the deity of waters and a predatory whale that sinks ships with ease, and hunts down sperm whales and sea lions.

The image resembles a prickly head with a tongue stuck out, symbolising bleeding during sacrificial oblation. Throughout the dry season, blood sacrifice was obligatory for propitiation of the orca. Two of the orca heads are symmetrically composed, the third is smaller and with reduced iconography; its tongue is the same—even more expressive.

The lower register of the vessel is occupied by a frieze of jaguar heads. The jaguar was a sacred animal for the pre-Columbian civilisations, the embodiment of power and the leader of souls in the afterlife. The pattern on its coat blends with the starry sky, while its maw is likened to the earth ‘devouring’ the sky at sunset.

Such vessels formed part of burial gifts, testifying to the continuity of the agricultural cult and the completion of the life cycle in the minds of the peoples of Nazca.

The impact of the power of gesture, the dynamics of the composition and the chromatic solutions combine to make Nazca ceramics a phenomenon in the culture of pre-Columbian America.

Alexandra Yaneva