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Pre-Columbian Gallery

Objects from the Pre-Columbian Collection are on display in the Pre-Columbian Gallery, which opened to the public in 1963. This building is comprised of eight circular domed galleries, with an open-air fountain at the center, all set within a perfect square. Composed of curving glass walls, Illinois Agatan marble columns, radial teak floors, and rims of mottled green Vermont marble, the Gallery provides a bright, glittering casement for the world-class Pre-Columbian objects displayed within it.

When exploring the Pre-Columbian art objects displayed in the Pre-Columbian Gallery, it is important to keep in mind that this collection was never intended to be encyclopedic. Instead, Robert Woods Bliss focused on objects he found to be of outstanding craftsmanship and unparalleled quality. For this reason, he acquired a large proportion of small objects made from exotic or otherwise highly valued materials such as jade, shell, and precious metals. Generally speaking, the galleries are organized by region and time period. Moving counterclockwise around the galleries, the visitor travels from Central Mexico down to the Andes, while a clockwise journey leads one from south to north instead.

Learn about the Collection Read the Online Publication

Map of the museum with the Pre-Columbian gallery highlighted


Gallery Themes and Organization

Gallery VIII: The First Encounter

A mask of the god Tezcatlipoca, patron deity of Aztec kings, greets visitors entering the Pre-Columbian Gallery. This gallery focuses on the first moment of encounter between the indigenous cultures of the Americas, represented by Aztec and Inka objects, and the Spanish during the first half of the sixteenth century. Two large serpents, carved animal effigies, and an obsidian altar demonstrate the extraordinary craftsmanship of Aztec artists at this time. A case devoted to Inka objects, including gold, silver, and copper works, shows the equally impressive artistry of South American craftsmen. These objects simultaneously serve as reminders of the stark differences between Spanish Christian practice and the religious belief systems of these “New World” cultures. The gold and silver Inka figurines, for instance, were offered alongside human sacrifices (known as “Capacocha”) to bring about cosmic order. The elaborately carved Aztec serpent, with its patterned skin and sharp claws, represents a Xiuhcoatl, a fiery, warlike serpent associated with annual fire ceremonies and the power of lightning strikes.

Gallery I: Central Mexico

This gallery focuses on the ancient art of Central Mexico, from Teotihuacan to the Aztecs. The famed metropolis of Teotihuacan, which reached its peak in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, is represented by several stuccoed and painted vessels, three stone masks, and a large painted mural fragment. A case containing finely crafted jewelry made of gold, shell, and obsidian showcases the exquisite dexterity of Aztec and Mixtec artists in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as does a striking case containing a spondylus shell carving of Xipe Totec (the so-called “Flayed God”). A beautifully carved wooden dart thrower brings to mind the many perishable materials that have been lost over the centuries in this region—including wood, gourds, paper ornaments, featherwork, and textiles.

Gallery II: The Gulf Coast of Mexico

This gallery displays objects from two major artistic periods encountered in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico. The first of these was the Olmec culture, which arose in the first millennium BC and is considered the first high civilization of Mesoamerica. Olmec art is represented in the displays by ritual implements, human figures, and other carvings in jade and greenstone. The gallery also contains stone objects from Classic Period Veracruz. These heavy stone yokes, hachas, and palmas appear to have served as ritual replicas, or effigies, of the lighter weight equipment worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame.

Gallery III: Maya Art—Courtly Life

In this gallery, clay figurines, ceramic vessels, and carved stone panels give shape to courtly life in the Late Classic Maya world (ca. seventh–eighth century). An exquisite figure of an elite Maya woman is exhibited in a central case, while other cases contain ceramic vessels painted with narrative scenes of life at court. Maya elites often advertised their connections across time and space. An heirloom Olmec pendant would have connected its wearer to deep time and ancient ancestors, while an imitation Teotihuacan-style vessel would have linked its owner to this famed, but distant metropolis. They also used exotic materials in items of personal adornment, as evidenced by a mask covered in turquoise that was likely acquired from the American Southwest.

Gallery IV: Maya Art—Religious Beliefs

This gallery focuses on Maya religious belief. The ancient Maya believed in an animate world, in which all materials were ensouled and alive. Multiple deities governed the natural and civilized worlds, requiring offerings and blood payments to maintain cosmic order. In this space, visitors encounter many of these deities, including the gods of maize, rain, cacao, and lightning. A case containing objects made of precious materials, such as shell and jade, not only emphasizes the sacred connections of these substances, but also their more practical function in advertising their owners’ elevated status, their access to foreign or exotic materials, and their access to the specialized artisans who made these remarkable objects. A large carved stone panel dominates the space, bringing themes of courtly life and religious belief together in a single, remarkable scene of a Palenque ruler, costumed as the rain god and dancing in the presence of his parents.

Gallery V: The Intermediate Area

The Intermediate Area stretches from modern-day Panama and Costa Rica to the northwestern and coastal zones of Colombia. Cultures encountered in this gallery include Coclé, Diquís-Chiriquí, Guanacaste-Nicoya, Veraguas, and Zenú. A warrior figure and mace head allude to warfare, though the majority of the gallery is dedicated to items of personal adornment. Breastplates, avian pendants, and earrings are the work of master goldsmiths. Shell ornaments and jade Axe God pendants, meanwhile, demonstrate the virtuosity and skill of ancient artists who worked with these challenging materials. Zoomorphic objects associated with water (turtles and crocodiles), earth (jaguars and deer), and sky (birds) suggest an interest in the three realms of the natural world.

Gallery VI: Andean Art—Northern Peru

This gallery highlights, among other themes, the long tradition of metalworking found in Northern Peru. Gold vessels from the Lambayeque culture and gold and silver pieces from the later Chimú culture surround the visitor with breathtaking beauty. A set of Chimú golden ornaments, including shimmering earrings, a breastplate, bracelets and other objects, is rumored to have come from a single burial context. To one side of the gallery, objects from the earlier Moche culture provide glimpses into the costume and ritual practices of this civilization. Painted ceramics show participants, such as “Wrinkle-Face” involved in ceremonial rites, while a vessel modeled into the shape of a human face likely represents a naturalistic portrait of an elite Moche personage. Examples of some of the costume elements seen on these vessels are found in nearby cases. Another case highlights the ways in which the natural world was depicted in ceramics and on shell.

Gallery VII: Andean Art—South and Central Highlands

The counterclockwise tour of the gallery ends in the South and Central Highlands of the Andes with an eclectic mix of objects from various cultures. Cupisnique carved stone vessels and Chavín goldwork depict hybrid supernatural creatures and human forms. Nazca art finds its way into two cases, one containing two large hammered gold hummingbirds and a ceramic vessel in the form of a severed head, imagery associated with sacrificial themes. A second case of Nazca ceramics highlights the creativity and artistry of these ancient ceramic artists. A Chancay figure and Paracas ceramic mask provide examples of art that would have been used in funerary contexts. Finally, a Wari mosaic mirror and small figurine—crafted from spondylus shell, mother of pearl, and other precious materials—are displayed in a central case as examples of the exquisite heights of artistry reached by ancient Andean craftsmen.


About the Pre-Columbian Gallery

In 1959, the Blisses commissioned the architect Philip Johnson to design a pavilion for the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. This building, with its eight circular domed galleries and central fountain, recalls Islamic architectural ideas. Johnson later credited the design to his interest in the early sixteenth-century Turkish architect, Mimar Sinan.

The Pre-Columbian Gallery opened in 1963. Johnson maintained that he wanted the garden to become part of the displays, with the plantings of the Bosque (or Copse) brushing the glass walls and the splashing sound of the central fountain creating an ambient outdoor effect. To achieve this, Johnson employed curved glass walls to blend the landscape with the building, later reminiscing that his idea was to fit a small pavilion into an existing tree-scape, blending the building with the Bosque.

Learn more in the Pre-Columbian Gallery Online Publication