Seated ruler in ritual pose
- 900–500 BCE
About 900 BCE, jadeite and other greenstones became the preferred material for precious small‑scale Olmec objects of symbolic importance. These stones derive ideological value from their rarity and color, which was often associated with water and maize fertility. Discovered in the late 1940s by a farmer, this figure has an unusually complete history of previous ownership. While it was still in Mexico, the figure was drawn by the noted artist and scholar Miguel Covarrubias.
This sculpture—at once miniature and monumental—probably depicts an Olmec ruler, who was the indispensable bridge between the natural and supernatural worlds. It is not a portrait in the literal sense. Instead, it personifies the supernatural authority the ruler exercised in life and would continue to exercise after death through his role as ancestor. This authority was conveyed through metaphor. The staring eyes indicate a state of trance, the means by which the ruler accessed supernatural power. The down-turned mouth, a feline feature, suggests that the human ruler was aided by a power animal such as the jaguar, traditionally the spirit companion of shamans and kings. The figure sits with one leg upraised, the posture of a ruler seated on his throne or on his woven mat of authority. The elongated forehead is a sign of cranial deformation, in which head flattening or binding intentionally alters the shape of the skull, a form of ritual beautification common among the Olmec and other Mesoamerican peoples. The absence of costume detail emphasizes the fact that rulers of this period were highly dependent on charisma, both personal and ancestral, to support their political authority. The dark and lustrous color of the stone itself is a metaphor for the permanence of the ruler’s power over maize and other growing things. Traces of precious red cinnabar adhere to the figure. The mineral’s red color was magical and visually conveyed the life force that was thought to reside in blood.
Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Seated figure with upraised knee (1983.50)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 37.
Carol Robbins, "Seated figure with upraised knee (1983.50)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection,_ _ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 183.
Carol Robbins, Label text, A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.
- The face bears a double-scroll motif, distinctive iconography that may be a symbol associated with a specific person or a ruler, perhaps the "Lord of the Double Scroll." Olmec scholar Peter David (P.D.) Joralemon has identified this design on a group of jade and serpentine carvings with similar features. Although it is possible the features represent a popular style, it is more likely that the double scroll is an iconographic symbol for a specific individual.