vessel in the form of a leader-priest with weapon and drinking vessel

Colima culture
Creation date
slipped and painted earthenware
11 x 10 1/2 x 6 in. | 27.9 x 26.7 x 15.2 cm.
Credit line
Gift of the Alliance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art
Accession number
Currently On View In
Michael and Patricia McCrory & Richard and Rebecca Feldman Gallery - K214

The art of ancient West Mexico comprises three distinct styles, named from the present-day Mexican states of Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco.

Ancient West Mexicans used a unique shaft-chamber tomb, an underground series of rooms reached by a narrow, vertical opening, or shaft.

The dead were surrounded by offerings of food and objects to aid them in the afterlife, including lively earthenware sculptures of people, animals and plants.

The seated leader-priest wears a cone-shaped object of ritual importance, an animal horn or seashell, over his forehead.

The seated male figure wears a tunic draped over one shoulder and a curved pendant around his neck.

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Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

Designed to be buried in a tomb as a guardian in the afterlife, this tunic-draped figure is fashioned as a container with a spout on top of the head. The man’s eager expression and animated gesture accentuate the significance of the objects he holds: the drinking cup in his left hand might allude to a feast given by a ruler, while the weapon in his right wards off evil. The figure is made of earthenware, a porous clay fired at a low temperature. The artist coated parts of the figure with a slip, a liquid clay that in this case turned red when fired, then applied additional paint after the piece was fired.

Art historians and anthropologists disagree about how to read the figure’s features. His pierced ears indicate high rank, but the projection on the forehead might represent either a strapped-on conch seashell, a common ancient American symbol of rulership, or—the most widely accepted view—an animal horn, the supernatural mark of a shaman. Shamans divine the causes of illness and cure disease, predict the future, and generally preserve the well-being of the people. These figures may fulfill spiritual and political purposes: they invoke cosmic beliefs about fertility and the order of the universe, dramatize the act of sacrificial offering, or reinforce the authority of certain clans.

The exaggerated gestures of Colima sculptures influenced the British sculptor Henry Moore.