Quetzalcoatl, the legendary figure in Mexican civilization, is the central figure of a new exposition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The leader-educator-god also had an influence on the Pacific northwest of Costa Rica that was tied closely to the Mayan and Aztec civilizations.
Quetzalcoatl is best known as the reason why Montezuma did not immediately smash the invading Spanish under Hernán Cortés. The Aztec leader thought the Spanish conquistador was Quetzalcoatl returning, according to the controversial theory advanced by Cortés himself. But the legend is much more than that.
Quetzalcoatl is the feathered serpent, an entity or even a god from well before the major Mexican civilizations of the Maya and later the Aztecs.
The exposition, “Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico,” is the first large-scale exploration of the ancient kingdoms of southern Mexico and their patron deity, Quetzalcoatl, the human incarnation of the Plumed Serpent, said the museum. On view from April 1 through July 1 the exhibition features more than two hundred objects, including painted codices, turquoise mosaics, gold, and textiles, from Mexico, Europe, and the United States.
These rare artworks trace the development of an extensive trade network that resulted in a period of cultural innovation that spread across ancient Mexico, the American Southwest, and Central America during the Postclassic and early colonial periods from 900 to 1521 A.D., said the museum.
“This exhibition foregrounds an era of cultural innovation in Mesoamerica when trade networks, closely linked to the deity Quetzalcoatl, facilitated the exchange of both goods and ideas across vast distances,” said Victoria Lyall, associate curator of Latin American art, as quoted in a museum release. “Southern Mexican kingdoms recognized Quetzalcoatl as their founder and patron, and these communities became, and continue to be, the Children of the Plumed Serpent.”
According to the museum:
This exhibition follows the historical trajectory of Quetzalcoatl’s life and explores his role as founder and benefactor of the Nahua-, Mixtec-, and Zapotec-dominated kingdoms of southern Mexico. Legendary accounts provide key insights into the sophistication and complexity of Postclassic-period societies in Mexico.
According to legend, Tollan was founded by Quetzalcoatl, an incarnation of the ancient spirit force of wind and rain that combined the attributes of a serpent with those of the quetzal bird. The Toltec people prospered at Tollan by engaging in long distance commerce until Quetzalcoatl’s rivals schemed against him. Exiled from Tula he traveled east, and the civil strife that ensued led to Tollan’s destruction.
The communities of southern Mexico came to power after the fall of Tula and embraced the deity as their founder and benefactor. Organized into a loose confederacy of royal families, these southern kingdoms developed a highly sophisticated mode of visual communication that was remarkably effective in transcending linguistic and ethnic differences.
For three hundred years the Children of the Plumed Serpent remained the dominant cultural, political, and economic force throughout southern Mexico, until a rival emerged in the Basin of Mexico, the Aztec Empire of the Triple Alliance. These kingdoms, however, successfully resisted Aztec and later Spanish control.
The exhibition will go to the Dallas, Texas, Museum in June and will be there from July 29 to Nov. 25.
The Los Angeles museum notes that the Mexican city of Cholula eventuallly became the center of Quetzalcoatl worship by abut 1200 A.D. That also was the city where Cortés and his allies slaughtered the assembled unarmed priests in 1519. Cholula is near the Mexican city of Puelba and dominated by the Great Pyramid that is crowned by a Spanish church.