The Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of art of the ancient Americas explores the richness of art from ancient Mesoamerica to the Central Andes, and spans more than 2,500 years from the Olmec culture to the Contact-era Aztec and Inca Empires. Inspired by Yale professor and pioneering art historian George Kubler, the Gallery began collecting ancient American art in the 1950s, with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Fred Olsen. The Olsen collection provided a representative base of Mesoamerican art and established the strength of the collection in the art of the Maya and the cultures of West Mexico, including outstanding Maya ceramic figurines from Jaina Island and striking sculptures and house models from West Mexico. The collection has grown, fostered by Mary Miller, the Sterling Professor of Art and Senior Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, with a special focus on the Maya and the Mesoamerican ballgame, including a rare ceramic model of a ballcourt, figures of ballplayers, and ballgame paraphernalia. Recent acquisitions include a portrait of an elite Maya woman rendered in painted stucco, notable Olmec and early Maya pieces, and major donations of antiquities from Costa Rica and the Central Andes. Several important objects from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, formerly curated by renowned Mesoamericanist and Yale professor Michael D. Coe, the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, are currently on view in the Cornelia Cogswell Rossi Foundation Gallery of Art of the Ancient Americas.
The Mesoamerican collection encompasses the region’s major artistic traditions, including the Aztec, Gulf Coast, Maya, Mixtec, Olmec, Teotihuacan, West Mexico, and Zapotec. Mesoamerican artists represented ancestors, animals, deities, and rulers in a variety of materials, including bone, ceramic, shell, stone, and stucco. Incense burners served as a vital means of contacting deities and ancestors through offerings of aromatic resins, and vibrantly painted ceramic vessels, used for feasting and drinking cacao, show mythological scenes and offer glimpses into courtly life and scribal traditions. The Gallery’s collection of jades showcases the skill with which Olmec and Maya carvers rendered hard precious stones into graceful objects without the benefit of metal tools. Other highlights include a rare imperial Aztec altar that portrays the rhythmic creation and destruction of the cosmos, a monumental portrayal of a fanged and goggle-eyed rain god from the Gulf Coast, and an exceptional head of Xochipilli-Macuilxochitl, the Aztec god of games, music, and drunkenness.
Objects from the diverse traditions of the Central Andes, such as the Chavín, Inca, Lambayeque, Moche, Nasca, Paracas, and Wari, enrich the display. In contrast to the humid tropical climate of Mesoamerica, the extreme dryness of the Andean coast favored the preservation of beautiful and elaborate textiles of unparalleled quality. Inca priests and rulers left intricate gold and silver figures, originally clothed in miniature textiles, on the snow-capped summits of the Andean cordillera as offerings to gods and ancestors. Coastal Nasca and Moche peoples gave offerings of painted and sculptural ceramic vessels, which were prized for their inventiveness and detail. Gold, ceramic, and wooden vessels for drinking and pouring offerings of maize beer solidified bonds among the living and ultimately embellished royal tombs. Among the many striking objects on display are a Lambayeque gold crown, exquisite miniature textiles, and a pair of lifelike Moche portrait vessels.