Pedestal Plate with Praying Mantis Motif

Central America, Panamá, Macaracas. Period VIB, AD 800-1000.
Ceramic. 4 x 8 x 4 1/8 in. pedestal diam.
1990.11.298
Gift of William C. and Carol W. Thibadeau

Amidst the swirling forms of this tall Panamanian plate is the image of a praying mantis, the sticklike carnivorous insect known for its ferocity. In the upper center are two widely spaced oval eyes and bared teeth. The body below features two zigzag arms and the bulbous thorax that ends in a concentric circle. Mantis’ angular legs are implied among the snake-headed lines below, while spiraling lines emanating from the head creatively exaggerate the antennae. Thus, the artist mixed body arts and freeform designs in a typically Panamanian exuberance. Mantises are good at camouflaging themselves, looking like leaves or sticks and staying completely immobile 90% of the time. Therefore, the difficulty the viewer may have in finding and keeping the insect’s image as separate from the background mirrors actual animal behavior.

This mantis is shown in the aggressive position, ready to grab its prey with its upraised arms. Mantises eat other insects as well as animals much larger than it, such as mice and birds. Hence the pose suggests that the artist chose to communicate a message of aggressive power. In ancient times Panama was organized into chiefdoms, a type of social organization that favors competition between individuals and groups to gain and keep status. Therefore, a person might identify with the praying mantis, representing himself as a similarly formidable enemy. However, since female praying mantis decapitate and devour their mates, the type of power being expressed may be that of a woman (in neighboring Colombia, woman were chiefs as well as men).