Pear-Shaped Tripod Vessel with Modeled Jaguar Features

Central America, Costa Rica/Nicaragua, Greater Nicoya, Pataky Polychrome, Pataky Variety. Period IV, AD 1000-1350.
Ceramic. 12 x 5 in. diam.
1991.4.337
Ex coll. William C. and Carol W. Thibadeau

Successful works of art seem to balance the boldly stated with the artfully concealed or implied. This Pataky style jaguar human vessel from northwestern Costa Rica, created during the last few centuries before the Spanish invasions, strikes just such a balance. The powerful legs, lunging head, and graphic black patterning are nothing if not bold; they characterize 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 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, pre-fired 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 and as shamanic statements. Here the position taken by the jaguar is a human, vertical one not possible for the animal. The front paws resting on the back legs are like the typical meditation pose of the shaman with hands resting on knees. Therefore, this image shows not just a jaguar but a transformed shaman in his/her animal form. In a new podcast in the Carlos Conversation Series, Rebecca Stone, Associate Professor of Art History and Curator of Ancient American Art, and John Polisar, Coordinator of the Jaguar Conservation Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, discuss the most feared and revered animal of the Americas, and its importance in the shamanic religious traditions of the ancient people of this region. Download now.