In Focus

Head of the Rain God Tlaloc

The following excerpt was written in 2003 by Carol Robbins, the former Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Curator of the Arts of Americas and the Pacific, for the publication Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.

In a letter dated March 20, 1967, Stanley Marcus wrote Merrill Rueppel, then Director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts: "Dear Merrill: Here are enlargements of Minox shots of the five foot five terracotta polychromed head which I discussed with you. It's en route to the Museum along with the man who will put it together. It will arrive sometime in the next two or three weeks and it will take him about ten days to install it."

The man arrived in Dallas with 400 pounds of ceramic pieces. What he put together was a colossal Head of the rain god Tlaloc (1967.5), which entered the Museum's collections as a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus in memory of Mary Frieberg. Mary Freiberg was, in Stanley's words, a person with great interest in and love for everything Mexican—particularly folk art. She lived in Los Angeles.

The prominent blue rings around the eyes and the fangs that once streamed from the mouth identify the head as the Central Mexican god of rain and lightning, whom the Aztecs called Tlaloc. For the Aztecs, who dominated Central Mexico between 1325 and 1521 CE, Tlaloc was "the provider," "he who makes things grow." The goggled eyes and jaguar teeth had been characteristic features since the time of Teotihuacan (200-700 CE), where the rain god was often depicted with lightning, water, and maize. Serpents are another attribute of the Museum's Tlaloc. A serpent's tail curves to form each eyebrow; a serpent's body loops around Tlaloc's nose; profile serpent heads flank his mouth. A different kind of serpent emerges from the center of Tlaloc's ear ornament. Serpents were also associated with water (as conveyors of water) and with lightning (the lightning bolts that Tlaloc hurled from his mountain retreat).

The sculpture functioned originally as a brazier, to burn rubber and copal as food for the gods. It is tempting to picture it in an urban setting, perhaps on the terrace of a pyramid, surrounded by billowing clouds of smoke. But the sculpture was reportedly found in a cave in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, in the area where the Mixtec culture flourished from about 1200 to 1500 CE—the Late Postclassic period in the chronology of ancient Middle American (or Mesoamerican) art.

Some works of art sit quietly in cases, but Tlaloc has led an active life since coming to Dallas. From the start, his monumental scale made him a commanding presence in the ancient American galleries. He inspired the theme of the 1968 Beaux Arts Ball, Tlaloc's Frolic, chaired by Schatzie Lee and Emily Hexter. He soon attracted three friends that had been found with him in Oaxaca, a large hand (1969.13.3) and two enormous frogs (1969.13.1; 1969.13.2). Like Tlaloc, frogs and toads were symbols of rain and fertility. Tlaloc and the frogs traveled to New York City in 1970 for a centennial exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Before Cortés, Sculpture of Middle America.

In preparation for the move from Fair Park to the downtown building, Tlaloc received conservation treatment in 1983, something on the order of an extended facial and plastic surgery. Conservator Jo Ann Griffin assessed the soundness of the glue joins, redoing the weak ones. Using countless cotton swabs and deionized water, she patiently removed vast amounts of dirt from the surface, revealing considerable color. Using moistened cotton packs, she removed the glue smears from the 1967 reassembly. Meanwhile, curator John Lunsford addressed the design of a new neck, which would support the sculpture securely in its new, more vulnerable location on the third-level landing of the new building. After studying a similar head at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, a smaller example at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and depictions of Tlaloc in the codices, Lunsford decided on the size and shape for the neck. The new neck, with its stucco exterior and concrete core, increased Tlaloc's weight by 560 pounds, to a total of about 990 pounds. Tlaloc made the move safely, and he and the frogs served as signposts for the non-Western collections, surveying the second-level galleries from their place on the third.

Upon completion of the Hamon Building in 1993, Tlaloc and the frogs moved again, to a place of honor outside the new Ancient Art of the Americas galleries on level four, where they are frequently surrounded by children listening to their story.

Excerpt from

Carol Robbins, “Head of the Rain God Tlaloc,” in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 27.