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Vessel in the Form of a Jaguar Permanent Collection:
Art of the Ancient Americas:
Vessel in the Form of a Jaguar

Central America, Costa Rica, Guanacaste-Nicoya, Pataky. Polychrome, Pataky Variety. Period VI, A.D. 1000 - 1550. Ceramic, 12 1/16 x 8 7/8 in. diameter (30.2 x 22.2 cm diameter). 1991.4.337

Successful works of art seem to balance the boldly stated with the artfully concealed or implied. This Pataky style jaguar effigy vessel from northwestern Costa Rica, created during the last few centuries before the Spanish, strikes just such a balance. The powerful legs, lunging head, and graphic black patterning are nothing if not bold; they characterize in superlatives the bloodthirsty beauty of the king of the American tropics, the jaguar. Yet, while capturing certain realistic features, such as bloody fangs, the artist certainly avoided rendering the animal literally. For instance, patterning on the haunches, shoulders, and around the neck creates the look of jaguar spots by abstracting small whole jaguar figures into rosettes.

Jaguar spots which are themselves jaguars subtly distill the essence of the animal. Even more hidden is a surprising reference to the sound of the jaguar: when the vessel is moved, prefired clay balls in the hollow legs and mouth rattle ominously, much like the great cat's low growl. Many ancient American works of art simultaneously function as musical instruments. Although the rattles would rarely have been heard - the jaguar is typically silent except when threatened - they were carefully built into the piece so as to communicate a crucial element of the subject's raw power.

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