Pendant: masked figure
- 700–1100 CE
Among the societies of Central America, gold ornaments were important symbols of power and prestige that expressed authority and status in life and in death. Made to be suspended around the neck, the image on this gold pendant is flattened and bilaterally symmetrical for maximum decorative effect. Although not visible from the front, suspension loops are located on the reverse at the back of each shoulder—craftsmen thus cleverly adapted the natural forms of totemic creatures to the functional demands of this jewelry.
This pendant represents a composite figure with both human and animal-like features. The figure wears a banded headdress with spiny, catfishlike barbel projections that extend from the top of the head, elaborate leg ornaments, and a trapezoidal loincloth. The prominent ears and upturned curled nose are characteristic features of the bat, while the barbels and bulging eyes are features commonly associated with the catfish, and may thus represent a mask or the fusion of both human and animal traits. The figure is crowned by two serpents with catfishlike features, and the nude torso features knob-shaped breasts.
Pendants featuring animal creatures are a common theme among the cultures of Intermediate Central America. Depicted in a variety of sizes and styles, they sometimes represent a fusion of various animal features and species. Though their exact meaning is unknown, pendants were likely worn on ceremonial occasions, and similar pendants were still being worn at the beginning of the 16th century conquest. In present-day Central America, bats are associated with agriculture, vegetation, and sacrifice, while fish are associated with water, life, and fertility. For many peoples of the ancient Americas, animals were likely considered mythic figures—certain animal qualities would have been seen as important, even supernatural, qualities that the wearer would have hoped to inherit. Animal pendants may have thus offered protection to the wearer, and when represented in gold, such as this example, they are even more powerful.
Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Pendant with two frogs (1976.W.292), Pendant bell depicting a turtle (1976.W.301), Pendant depicting a batlike mask (1976.W.237)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 35.
Anne R. Bromberg, Dallas Museum of Art: Selected Works (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1983), 45.
Carol Robbins, Label text [1976.W.298; 1976.W.297; 1976.W.292], A. H. Meadows Galleries.
"Bat-Nosed Figure Pendant (1979.206.1155)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1979.206.1155/. (August 2009).