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At DMA, A Look At Ancient Mexico

Codex Nuttall, Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY

A new exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art explores the art and culture from the ancient kingdoms of southern Mexico. And the show’s sweet spot can be found where art and history intersect.

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The exhibition, called “The Legacy of the Plumed Serpent in Ancient Mexico,” centers on Quetzalcoatl, the god of wind and rain. He’s called the “plumed serpent” because he’s depicted with both snake and bird features.

Quetzalcoatl was important to the various cultures that dotted southern Mexico from 1000-1521 AD. He shows up in sculptures and carvings from throughout the region, proving to historians that an extensive trade network existed at the time.

Victoria Lyall of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is one of the show’s curators.

LYALL: “You have Quetzalcoatls from the gulf coast, you have images of the cut shell from central Mexico. You have Quetzalcoatl rendered from Yucatan. And you can start tracing how this imagery really spreads across such a vast geographic expanse. And we use him sort of as the frame to really look at this cultural exchange and innovation during this period.”

Bust of Quetzalcoatl

One of the highlights of the show is a painted manuscript called a codex. It’s made of deerskin, and on it, colorful figures tell the life story of 11 Wind, and important ruler.

LYALL: “It’s the same thing that happens in comic books, where you have the hero repeated in every single frame, so that you know it’s his story. The same thing happens here – 11 Wind is repeated over and over again throughout the two pages to showcase that this is his story.”

It’s believed that hundreds of these codices were once in existence, but many of them were burned when European explorers reached the region. Only about 12 remain.

The one on view at the DMA survived because it was a gift from the Spanish conquistador Cortes to Charles V. Cortes hoped it would convince the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire that there were indeed riches in the New World.

It’s resided in the British Museum in London since 1917. This exhibition marks its first trip back across the Atlantic in nearly 500 years.