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In a 16th-century triptych of the crucifixion at the Musée National de la Renaissance, north of Paris, Christ has wings. In fact the whole piece is made of feathers. The veil over the Virgin Mary is a brilliant blue, possibly from the lovely cotinga; the clothing on Saint John is bright green, either from a parrot or the quetzal; and the blood dripping from Christ’s wounds has hues of a red macaw or hummingbird. How feathers of Central American birds found their way into this biblical scene goes back to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, and the transformation of indigenous feather art into a colonial export from New Spain.
Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe 1400–1700, published by Hirmer Verlag and distributed by University of Chicago Press, is the first thorough study of Mesoamerican feather mosaics from this era of change. It follows a 2011 exhibition at the National Museum of Art (MUNAL) in Mexico City, and is edited by the show’s curators: art historian Alessandra Russo of Columbia University; Gerhard Wolf, director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence; and Diana Fane, curator emerita of the arts of the Americas at the Brooklyn Museum. At 480 pages, with over 300 photographs and essays by 33 authors, Images Take Flight examines feather art from every possible angle, such as Aztec mural paintings, early modern ornithology, international trade, and the ethereal radiance of feathers.
Few works of Aztec feather art survive, although Hernán Cortés sent some as war trophies back to Spain. Following their takeover, the Spanish encouraged amantecas, or feather artists, to continue their work in today’s Mexico City and make icons of Catholic saints. As the editors write, within “months after the arrival of the conquerors, the amantecas were creating feather objects destined for Europe as well as Asia … In their new settings, feather mosaics stimulated local artists to explore the medium.”
Examples of their feather art made it all the way to Japan by the late 16th or early 17th century, and the unique iridescence of the work, which changes color depending on the angle and light, influenced visual expression on a global scale. In the 17th century, the chief gardener in the State of Milan, Dionisio Minaggio, was inspired to create the Libro di piume (The Feather Book) (previously covered on Hyperallergic), a book about and made of feathers from birds in his region of Italy.
“Created by indigenous hands with traditional techniques, they were destined for European prelates and princes,” art historian Pascal Mongne writes in Images Take Flight. “Their purpose was not just to show the quality of the mechanical arts the friars considered worthy of the greatest accomplishments of the Renaissance, but — above all — to represent the progress made in the conversion of the New World, and the will of the local population to accept Christianity.”
Indigenous arts were tightly controlled in New Spain, and the Roman Catholic feather art has little trace of its precolonial heritage, during which time its use in dance and battle saw the plumage come alive with movement. Still, even if the subjects weren’t representative of local history, they had its ecology and trade embedded in the material.
Laura Filloy Nadal and María de Lourdes Navarijo Ornelas describe in their essay on a feather disk at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, possibly of an Aztec rain god, how comparing it to a taxidermy archive revealed feathers from completely different ecosystems. They add that while the feathers often came from a trade network, they were also harvested from aviaries, including at Moctezuma II’s palace where “birds in captivity were not only intended for the contemplation of the king and his court, but also served as a source of feathers.”
Crafted carefully with glue from orchid bulbs, feather art remained very much connected to precolonial history, even as the indigenous art was forcibly altered into a new fusion between the Old World and the New.
Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe 1400-1700 is out now from Hirmer Verlag, distributed by University of Chicago Press.