NEW YORK — Don’t expect to see a more beautiful show than “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas” anytime soon. The exhibition, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a fresh, transformative take on pre-Columbian art. It boasts more than 200 objects made from gleaming gold, green and blue jade, resplendent macaw feathers, turquoise, and coral-colored, scallop-shaped Spondylus shells, among other materials. It’s ravishing.
But it’s more than that. It’s chewy. It’s mind-bending. It has enough fresh scholarship behind it to make you rethink basic assumptions. And it has, at the show’s end, a small but concentrated dose of world-historical drama that will stop your heart.
The show turns the usual way of doing things inside out. Instead of surveying everything it can get its hands on from a single culture — the Maya, for instance, or the Inca — the Met’s Joanne Pillsbury and her team zoom out to survey the full gamut of pre-Columbian cultures. Thus, the exhibition drifts nonchalantly through 2½ millennia, hopping from Olmecs to Aztecs via Moche, Coclé, Maya and Mixtec.
At the same time, astutely, they narrow their focus to luxury arts. Why “luxury arts”?
Today, we associate the term with superfluity. Luxury objects are the stuff you spend spare cash on in a bid for status and pleasure (often when you’re no longer clear on the difference). In art history, the term “luxury arts” refers to small, precious works that are neither paintings nor big sculptures.
Neither assumption quite applies here. The objects in this show were made by highly skilled artisans working at specific times and in specific places, mostly in city states. They were competing with rivals to make the most extraordinary objects they could from materials freighted with spiritual significance. Objects that aroused the senses and (here’s the key thing) harnessed the divine. They were generally on the small side, which meant they could be held, worn, used in rituals, carried long distances, exchanged — and plundered.
Why hasn’t this been done before? In part, it’s because so few of the finest objects made from materials truly precious to pre-Columbians survived the Spanish conquest. Even in the best museum collections, we tend to see only scattered examples of gold, jade, textiles and shells among endless ceramics.
Don’t get me wrong. I love pre-Columbian ceramics. But their relative abundance skews the story. By gathering the finest examples of what has survived in the materials these cultures valued most, and by focusing (unfashionably) on what Pillsbury describes as “innovation, excellence and . . . exchanges,” the exhibition supercharges our sense of the power, complexity and sophistication of these cultures.
The artists who made these objects were drawn mostly from the ranks of the elites. They worked under the strict control of state authorities. The objects they made reflected “ideas of right and title,” according to Pillsbury. In particular, they expressed divine power.
The material that occurs most is gold, which was known to the Aztecs as “divine excrement.” In fact, gold’s adoption by pre-Columbian cultures and its slow, northward migration, from the Central Andes (around 2000 B.C.) to Mexico (where gold metallurgy didn’t really kick in until after 1000 A.D.), form the narrative spine of the show.
But gold was not, for these cultures, the most valuable material. More precious — and far more difficult to obtain — was jade, which was associated with maize, the all-important food staple. Spondylus shells, which had to be dived for along the Pacific coast, were also, arguably, valued more highly than gold.
The show builds on archaeological discoveries that have lately transformed our understanding of pre-Columbian cultures. One thing that has become clearer is that women often wielded great power. The discovery of high-status burial tombs belonging to Maya queens and a Moche woman known as the Lady of Cao, each one strewn with precious objects, have made scholars rethink female roles within these extremely hierarchical societies.
There are eye-popping things everywhere you look: A tiny spoon with a figurine made from 22 distinct pieces of gold and silver was most likely used to inhale hallucinogens during spiritual rituals. A mask covered in a mosaic of lustrous turquoise made its way into the collection of Cosimo I de Medici.
There are several checkerboard tunics of the kind worn by Atahualpa, the Inca king, at his first meeting with Francisco Pizarro, the lowborn Spanish conquistador. And — lest we over-sentimentalize the Inca society that Pizarro and his compatriots destroyed — we also see miniature checkerboard tunics and little figurines that were part of an Inca ritual known as capac hucha, or “royal obligation.” The ritual revolved around selected children, who were married in ceremonies in Cusco, the capital, and then sent in procession to distant territories, where their presence was intended to mark the limits of the empire and invoke the spirit of the ancestral landscape. The children were then killed and ritually buried — with the figurines.
Elsewhere, we learn, via golden necklace beads and waist adornments depicting a deity known as the Spider Decapitator, about spiritual connections in Moche culture between spiders and warriors. Much like spiders in their webs, Moche warriors tied captured enemies with ropes and drained their blood.
Civilizations are built on violence. They have always depended, too, on the rape of nature. We might wish it otherwise, but often the most beautiful things tax nature most heavily.
Case in point: the stunning panels made from thousands of brightest yellow and blue macaw feathers. Made between 600 and 900 A.D., they were discovered in a cache in Peru in the middle of a world war — 1943. Panels made from macaw feathers do not begin to compare in egregiousness to what we are doing to nature today. But they might be an early example of a human compulsion we don’t seem willing to outgrow.
The beauty all through this show is intense. The objects in it were made not just to please the eye, but to appeal to other senses: the touch and shimmer of textiles, the tinkling sound of dangling pendants, even the metallic taste of gold spoons.
The heartbreak comes at the end. It hinges, of course, on the Spanish conquest, and the total moral catastrophe that ensued.
Several objects open windows onto the story. One is a small picture, which — remarkably — uses colored hummingbird, quetzal, cotinga and macaw feathers instead of paint. It depicts a legendary 6th-century Mass and was sent as a gift to Pope Paul III to thank him for his 1537 papal bull. The decree recognized indigenous Americans as rational beings with souls. For all the disasters this patronizing assertion failed to prevent, it had one truly profound effect: It forbade their enslavement.
Nearby, in among some Mixtec gold pendants discovered in the 1970s by an octopus fisherman from Veracruz, is an unprepossessing lump of bullion. It was melted down by men who accompanied the conquistador Hernán Cortés’s men into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.
The Aztecs who received the Spaniards and their band of indigenous allies had since turned against them and were besieging their compound. On June 30, 1520, on the infamous La Noche Triste, or Night of Sorrows, Cortes decided to break out of the city. He instructed his men to load themselves up with as much gold as possible before, on a rainy night, attempting to escape.
They were attacked while crossing the causeway. Many fell into the lake and drowned, weighed down by plundered gold. This particular bar of gold, recovered from beneath the streets of Mexico City in a 1982 excavation, was probably lost that night.
Golden Kingdoms: Luxury & Legacy in the Ancient Americas Through May 28 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For information, visit metmuseum.org.