San Sebastián style - NAYARIT

100 BC. - 250 AD.

Height : 38 cm - Width : 17 cm - Depth : 13 cm

Hollow brown terracotta with red-orange slip, polychrome decorations


This mother and her young child are a rare example of Nayarit funerary ceramics. It is in the style of San Sebastián, an area located on the border between Nayarit and Jalisco. The admirable sensitivity and aesthetic originality of this work, which evokes Niki de Saint-Phalle's famous Nanas, is undoubtedly the reason why twentieth-century Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo were so interested in this culture, as well as in the neighboring Jalisco and Colima traditions.

Coming from a well tomb, a typical burial site in western Mexico, this piece illustrates the theme of "woman with child". Women in general are very present in the art of the West Coast, which suggests that they enjoyed a more important status than elsewhere and would explain why the Aztecs called this territory Cihuatlan, which can be translated as "the place of the Women". On the other hand, works of this type, presenting a nursing woman, are not very common. It is therefore an exceptional piece.

Behind this scene of everyday life, some scholars see much more than the union of a mother and child. It could be the representation of the Mother goddess, accompanied by a child personifying new life. The symbolic discourse would therefore be that of the "life-death-rebirth" cycle. Unless they are women engaged in one of the many initiation rites that punctuated the lives of individuals, marking each stage of their existence.

Whatever the case, it seems certain today that these works were not "anecdotal" as has long been believed, but rather actors in the spiritual life of their contemporaries, charged with watching over the eternal rest of the deceased of high rank and recommending them to the higher powers. The care taken in their creation and their strong individuality indicate that they are perhaps portraits (deceased or servants), as important in the eyes of the clan as their owner was.

 The whole body of the woman is covered with a beautiful orange-red slip and vigorous black ornamental motifs. Luckily, this bright polychromy has survived. The head is narrow in comparison to the wide body. The skull, narrowed at the level of the temples and then widened, has obviously undergone a ritual deformation, a common practice in Mesoamerica among the dominant social classes. The black painted hair was engraved while the clay was not yet baked, on either side of a central stripe. The hair is cut in a ponytail at the back and falls in a point on the nape of the neck and the collar.

The face looks rather emaciated. He has black paint on his cheeks. The eyes are hollowed out and the eyelids are shaped. The nose is strong and its tip is raised so that one can see the large pierced nostrils. The half-open mouth is also hollowed out. The protruding ears are adorned with three large rings whose considerable weight can be imagined.


The woman wears a three-rowed necklace with three long pendants, decorated with beige dots, which descend between the breasts. These ornaments indicate a high rank in the community. The shoulders are broad and round. The slender left arm is exaggeratedly elongated. It goes up towards the chin, the hand hardly detailed supported on the jaw. The right arm on the other hand is short.

The right arm on the other hand is short. The powerful hand grasps the newborn baby placed against the full chest. The right breast is hidden by the baby's head in a horizontal position. The child's left hand, clearly visible, is positioned on the top of the breast while his right hand grasps the nipple of his mother. The left breast is visible and prominent.

The child's eyes are hollowed out and his nose is large. His skull also seems to have been deformed and his hair has been deeply engraved in the clay before firing and then painted black. Like his mother, he wears a two-row necklace decorated with beige dots.

The woman's bust is covered with parallel vertical lines made with black paint. The lower abdomen is swollen and the pelvis bulging. This part of the body including the upper thighs is not covered with red paint but with a cream slip decorated with weights and spirals made in negative.

The legs have an elephantine appearance as is often the case with Nayarit women. This unusual treatment provides a strange contrast to the thinness and elasticity of the arms. The long, wide toes are indicated by four vertical grooves. The heels protrude so that the front of the foot is as prominent as the back and appears in profile to be arched over both ends.  The back of the piece is flat, down to the buttocks, which stands out strongly.

This woman's attire sheds light on the traditions of the ancient Mexicans who used to signify their place in the community through their very bodies. The taste for jewelry and body painting seems to increase as one moves up the social hierarchy and distinctions of status, function and identity become more pronounced. Symbolically, the painted motifs are often interpreted as indicative of the chtonian character of the woman and her association with the procreative forces of Nature.