Unknown, Codex Nuttall, (15th-16th century), Mexico, Western Oaxaca, Deerskin, gesso, and pigments, 113.5 x 19 x 23.5 cm, The British Museum Library, London, Photo © Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY.

Unknown, Solar Disk, (AD 1530-1650), Mexico, Puebla, Tepeaca, Stone, 23 x 110 cm, Museo Regional de Puebla, Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA, by Jorge Pérez de Lara.

In the Beginning was Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent

Unknown, Feathered Serpent with the Year 1 Reed, (AD 1200-1521), Mexico, Basalt, 21 x 44 cm, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City/Photo © Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (CONACULTA-INAH-MEX).

Unknown, Bust of Quetzalcoatl, (AD 1300-1521), Mexico, Stone, 32.5 x 23 cm, The British Museum, London, Photo © Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY.

Unknown, Rain-god Vessel, (AD 1200-1500), Mexico, Colima, El Chanal, Slip-painted ceramic, 24.7 x 21 x 28.5 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Photo © Kimbell Museum/Art Resource, NY.

Unknown, Vessel with Codex-style Scene, (1350-1521), Mexico, Nayarit, Slip-painted ceramic, 33.66 x 19.05 cm, Purchased with funds provided by Camilla Chandler Frost, Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA.

Unknown, Atlantid (throne support), (AD 850-1150), Mexico, Yucatán, Chichen Itza, Limestone, 86 x 49 x 39 cm, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA, by Jorge Pérez de Lara.


Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA,
Resnick pavilion
Children of the Plumed Serpent:
The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico

April 1-July 1, 2012

Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico, the first large-scale exploration of the ancient kingdoms of southern Mexico and their patron deity, Quetzalcoatl, the human incarnation of the Plumed Serpent, features more than 200 objects — including painted codices, turquoise mosaics, gold, and textiles — from Mexico, Europe, and the United States. These rare artworks trace the development of an extensive trade network that resulted in a period of cultural innovation that spread across ancient Mexico, the American Southwest, and Central America during the Postclassic (AD 900-1521) and early colonial periods.

“This exhibition foregrounds an era of cultural innovation in Mesoamerica when trade networks, closely linked to the deity Quetzalcoatl, facilitated the exchange of both goods and ideas across vast distances,” said Victoria Lyall, LACMA associate curator of Latin American art, “Southern Mexican kingdoms recognized Quetzalcoatl as their founder and patron, and these communities became, and continue to be, the Children of the Plumed Serpent.”

The exhibition is co-curated by LACMA curators the late Dr. Virginia Fields and Dr. Victoria Lyall, and consulting curator Dr. John Pohl, an independent curator and scholar. After its staging in Los Angeles, the exhibition travels to Dallas Museum of Art where it is on view July 29 November 25, 2012.

Exhibition Background This exhibition follows the historical trajectory of Quetzalcoatl’s life and explores his role as founder and benefactor of the Nahua-, Mixtec-, and Zapotec-dominated kingdoms of southern Mexico. Legendary accounts provide key insights into the sophistication and complexity of Postclassic-period societies in Mexico. According to legend, Tollan was founded by Quetzalcoatl, an incarnation of the ancient spirit force of wind and rain that combined the attributes of a serpent with those of the quetzal bird. The Toltec people prospered at Tollan by engaging in long distance commerce until Quetzalcoatl’s rivals schemed against him. Exiled from Tula he traveled east, and the civil strife that ensued led to Tollan’s destruction.

The communities of southern Mexico came to power after the fall of Tula and embraced the deity as their founder and benefactor. Organized into a loose confederacy of royal families, these southern kingdoms developed a highly sophisticated mode of visual communication that was remarkably effective in transcending linguistic and ethnic differences. For 300 years the Children of the Plumed Serpent remained the dominant cultural, political, and economic force throughout southern Mexico, until a rival emerged in the Basin of Mexico, the Aztec Empire of the Triple Alliance. These kingdoms, however, successfully resisted Aztec and later Spanish control.

Exhibition Organization The exhibition is organized into five thematic sections, which are arranged chronologically. The first section, The World of Tula and Chichen Itza, explores the nascent trade networks originating from Tula in central Mexico and Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula. Devoted to the Plumed Serpent, these two centers attracted visitors from across the Americas and dominated the Mesoamerican political landscape between AD 900 and 1200. Imported goods such as ceramic vessels and gold from Central America, along with turquoise from the American Southwest, speak to the growing market for exotic materials developing around the devotion to Quetzalcoatl.

The second section, The New Tollan: The Emergence of Cholula and the Birth of the International Style, examines the rise of Cholula — after AD 1200 — as a center of religious authority and commerce in the Americas. By the 14th century, an international art style-characterized by its vivid palette and the use of bold symbols and simple icons — facilitated the exchange of ideas across ethnic and linguistic boundaries.

The third section, Feasting, Divination, and Heroic History, examines the ritual life of the Children of the Plumed Serpent. Feasting rituals played a vital role in regional politics, providing occasions for noble families to foment alliances and exchange rare gifts. Festivities included dancing, drinking, and the recitation of poetry. Revelers drank pulque (a beverage made from fermented agave) from finely painted goblets and poets recited the heroic exploits of cultural heroes as depicted by the painted codices.

The fourth section of the exhibition, Avenues of Trade and the Spread of the International Style, highlights the type of luxury goods that moved along the trade corridors. Royal houses through southern Mexico sought after power and rank by means of gift exchanges and wedding dowries, which ultimately resulted in fierce competitions for luxury goods. The International Style was widely adopted across Mesoamerica and ultimately united the disparate corners of the region. From the Yucatan peninsula to the vast reaches of Northern Mexico and the American Southeast, exotic materials such as shell and turquoise were exchanged for other elite commodities such as cacao and rare feathers.

The final section of the exhibition, The Aztec Conquest and the Spanish Incursion, examines the strategies employed by southern Mexican kingdoms in the face of new threats to their political and cultural landscape. By the 15th century, the Aztec Empire asserted its dominance over great swaths of Mesoamerica. The arrival of Hernán Cortés and his army in 1519 ended further conquest. Under the Spanish regime, the southern kingdoms reconstituted their confederacies and trading networks and emerged as an integral part of the new economy. Today, descendants of the Children of the Plumed Serpent continue to thrive in southern Mexico.

Publication The accompanying catalogue features exciting new research and groundbreaking analysis by more than fifteen leading scholars, archaeologists, and curators, including Virginia Fields (1952-2011) LACMA senior curator and co-department head of Latin American art, John M.D.Pohl, and Victoria Lyall.

Unknown, Effigy Censer, (AD 1200-1500), Mexico, Yucatán, Mayapan, Ceramic with pigments, 63.5 x 37 x 35 cm (?), Museo Regional de Antropología de Yucatán, “Palacio Cantón", Mérida, Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA, by Jorge Pérez de Lara.

Unknown, Chalice, (AD 1521-1600), Mexico, Puebla, Acatzingo, Slip-painted ceramic, 12.5 x 16.8 cm, Staatliches Museum für Volkerkunde, Munich, Photo © Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Munich, by M. Weidner.

Unknown, Finger Ring Depicting Xipe Totec, (AD 1000-1500), Mexico, Oaxaca, Gold, 3.3 x 3 x 1.7 cm, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Photo © National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

Unknown, Pedestal Bowl, (AD 1200-1521), Mexico, Slip-painted ceramic, 13.4 x 18 x 18.7 cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin: Preuβischer Kulturbesitz, Ethnologisches Museum, Photo © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum (IV Ca 10855), Berlin, Germany, by Ines Seibt/BPK, Berlin/Art Resource, NY


Unknown, Vessel with Head Emerging from Serpent Maw, (AD 900-1521), Mexico, Veracruz, Isla de Sacrificios, Fine Orange ceramic, 12.7 x 12 cm, The British Museum, London, Photo © Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY.