Radiance from the Rainforest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru at MMOA

 “The gloss, splendor, and sheen of this feather cloth is of such exceptional beauty that it must be seen to be appreciated,” wrote Europeans who arrived in Peru in the early 16th century. Astounded by the grandeur and fine quality of the textiles worn by Inka nobility, they particularly admired the luxurious cloth covered with plush, brilliantly colored feathers of birds from the Amazonian rain forest.

In Precolumbian Peru, feathers were highly valued for their magnificent colors, silken texture, and perhaps also for their symbolism. Known in ritual contexts as early as the third millennium B.C., feathers served various ceremonial and secular purposes among Andean peoples throughout preconquest history. On the Pacific south coast in the early first millennium A.D., the Nasca peoples buried feathered garments and precious cloth figurines only a few inches tall, which were dressed in miniature clothes embellished with feather tufts, as offerings.

In the 7th and 8th centuries the Wari people of the southern highlands covered impressive numbers of large panels with radiant macaw feathers, perhaps for display on festive occasions or as offerings. Farther north in the 15th and 16th centuries, Chimú royalty rode in feather-decorated litters and wore feathered tabards and luxurious accessories in iridescent blues, yellows, reds, and greens. The conquering Inka are said to have “paved” the streets in their imperial city, Cusco, with colored and feathered cloth on the occasion of royal weddings.

Ancient Peruvian featherwork has not been extensively studied. As these fragile objects only rarely survive burial in good condition, the full repertoire may never be known. This is the first exhibition at an American art museum to focus exclusively on the subject.

On view in the museum are about 70 works, graciously lent by museums and private collections, illustrating the wide range of items embellished with this luxury material – garments, crowns, personal ornaments, accessories, and ritual objects. Additional impressive feathered textiles from the museum’s permanent collection may be seen in the adjacent South American gallery.

Featherworking was a widespread and ancient tradition in Peru in Precolumbian times. Considered a luxury material by peoples along the Pacific coast and in the Andean mountains, feathers were used in rituals as well as to embellish festive and ceremonial garments and ornaments of persons of high rank. Particularly sought after were the brilliantly colored feathers of rain-forest birds that inhabit the eastern slopes of the Andes and the vast Amazonian basin.

Examination of feathered pieces in museum collections has shown that the feathers from less than two percent of all bird species in the region were used. The most common were macaws – blue and yellow, scarlet, and red and green – and parrots, followed by Muscovy Ducks, curassows, flamingos, and egrets. Smaller birds included various types of cotingas, honeycreepers, and tanagers, especially the spectacular Paradise Tanager of five different colors. Birds of the coastal and highland regions of Peru – seabirds such as pelicans and cormorants and birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, and condors – are generally muted in color, and their feathers were seldom used decoratively.

The dazzling feathers employed in the manufacture of plush feathered cloth had to be carried westward from the rain forest across the Andes to the coast, where the finished products were made. Spanish conquerors reported that during early-sixteenth-century Inka times, large quantities of plucked feathers as well as birds, both dead and alive, were brought to the coast. Parrots, macaws, and Muscovy Ducks – all easily tamed – are also thought to have been kept as pets.

The highly specialized craft of featherworking used different techniques to surface garments and objects with feathers. Textiles covered with feathers were usually made by sewing strings of feathers – mostly the small body feathers or larger wing feathers of birds – to the fabric. Other smaller objects such as crowns or headbands of leather or ear ornaments of light wood were decorated with mosaics of tiny feathers – often of the Paradise Tanager – glued to the surface.

The ancient context of feathered textiles is only rarely known, leaving iconography, style, and technology to determine approximate dates and cultural attribution. In recent years, however, archaeological investigations and technological studies have shown that most surviving feather pieces were made during the last five hundred years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in Peru or during the early colonial period in the sixteenth century.

Headgear was an essential part of elite costume in ancient Peru and was made in many shapes, sizes, and materials. Several types of headdress from the time the Chimú ruled over most of the north coast have survived. As in other cultures, certain headdresses probably were worn for specific occasions. Tall cylindrical crowns in gold and silver with cutout designs are known from the Chimú. This rare example features cutout seated anthropomorphic figures and heads in leather covered with tiny iridescent blue feathers. The figures and heads in profile wear headdresses and are arranged as repeats in registers. Noteworthy is the sculptural quality the artist achieved on the figures and heads by molding the leather while keeping the surrounding framework flat.

The exhibition was made possible by the Friends of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is located at 1000 Fifth Avenue in New York. For museum information visit http://www.metmuseum.org/home.asp or call 212-535-7710.