Andean textiles/ Chavin culture: The extraordinary figures of a God

Pre-Columbian textiles in central Andean region have been much admired since the time of the Spanish conquest, for the great variety of materials, techniques, designs and decorative elements. As in many other cultures and periods, textiles reflected the economic, social, political and religious development in every culture of the ancient Peru. They also defined the rank and status of the individual for whom the cloths and textiles were made. In relation to the iconography, they often feature strange creatures, which combine animal and human characteristics in one figure, offering a mythical and sacred meaning to the artifact. 

Chavin Culture 1000-200 B.C
The Chavín was a civilization that developed in the northern Andean highlands of Peru. The Chavin culture represents today the first widespread, recognizable artistic style in the Andes. The artistic expressions of this culture were closely associated with religious concepts. The priest caste was trying to establish the iconography of ferocious and solemn images, in almost all media, like textiles, ceramics and stonework. Of course, textiles, because of their portability, were used, in order to transmit the Chavin religion throughout much of the Andes. In relation to the color pallete, the Chavin artists prefered sober tones, like ochre, white and sienna.

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Figure from a Chavin, cotton cloth, The figure has feline features and hold scepters in both hands. He is probably a depiction of the staff-God.
(The illustration is based on a Chavin cloth picture, published in the book "Textiles of Ancient Peru, 2011, page 41)
When an object is shown more than once on a single Chavin textile, each appearance is fairly uniform, whereas the same object shown on different textile is distinct in each. 

The feline figure is one of the most important motifs in Chavin art. It has a religious meaning and it is also repeated on many carvings and sculptures. Eagles are also commonly seen throughout Chavin art. In fact, almost all motifs that appear on the painted cloths resemble both the stonework of the great temple at Chavin de Huantar and the images portrayed on the metal and stone artifacts attributed to Chavin burials. 

Textile iconography of Chavin art is full of serpents, hawks, felines and anthropomorphic figures, which are combined to form fantastic and fearsome beings. The main character is a mythical god with feline jaws, bird of prey claws, serpent hair and open arms holding scepters. The figures of these extraordinary creatures were later adopted by the successive Andean cultures and modified in accordance to their own cosmological vision.

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Chavin textile with a Staff God motif. The feet have only toe claws.
(The illustration is based on a Chavin textile picture, published in the book "The Junius B. Bird Pre-Columbian Textile Conference") 
Feline imagery is a recurrent theme in Pre-Columbian art. Large felines such as pumas and Jaguars are kings of the animal world in the Andes. Fangs and claws, and their ability to move fast, possibly made them in the eyes of the inhabitants the most feared and skilled predators. In art, feline imagery was often used to evoke physical strength and supernatural power. Some Chavin feet have heel spurs as well as tow claws. Those with heel spurs always belong to animals, and those without belong to human-like deities, specifically the Staff-God.    

The Staff God was a major deity in Andean cultures, usually depicted holding a staff in each hand. The figure of the God is a combination of human and animal: He has fanged teeth and clawed feet. He is also depicted with snakes in his headdress and clothes.. The oldest known depiction of the Staff God was carbon dated to 2250 BC, and this is the oldest image of god to be found in the Americas.


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