SEATED FIGURE, KNOWN AS “BABY FACE”

OLMEC – Las Bocas – PUEBLA – Mexico

900 – 600 A.D.

  • Height : 31.1 cm
  • Width : 30.8 cm
  • Depth : 15.7 cm

Beige hollow terracotta with a fine layer of ivory-white kaolin and traces of cinnabar. 

Anthropomorphic sculpture representing a seated figure, known as “baby face”.

The entire body is chubby and handled with smoothness. The legs are widely apart and the feet, of which the toes are evoked by cuts, are pointing outwards. The groin folds are marked. The belly is round and paunchy and the navel is perforated. The pectoral muscles are carefully modeled. The shoulders are wide and angular. The strong arms are apart from the body and outstretched, whereas the hands rest on the knees. The head presents an elongated shape due to a ritual distortion of the skull.  The facial features are handled with fineness and precision. The chin is protruding and a dimple appears under the lip. The trapezoidal mouth, with full and sensual lips, is open and shows the upper gum. The nose is aquiline, its wings are in relief and the nostrils are drilled. The slanting eyes have hollowed-out pupils. The fine arches of the eyebrows are engraved and join the root of the nose. The ears are salient. A tight headdress, decorated with an engraved and openwork motif that has a highly symbolic meaning, tops the head. This motif includes at the top a symbol composed of an elongated eye surmounted by eyebrow-shaped flames or feathers.

This “crested eye” is the hallmark of the “Olmec Dragon” of David Joralemon, renamed later by Karl Taube as the “Avian Serpent”. This heavenly being finds its origin in the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), thanks to its highly developed crest, and in the highly poisonous fer-de-lance snake. It is also the ancestor of the Feathered Serpent and one of its roles is to be the harbinger of the winds that bring the nourishing rains. Usually, the crested eye of the Olmec Dragon is complemented by the maw and the body of this supernatural being. This is not the case here. Instead, the crested eye is supplemented by other symbolic designs, including an openwork of several diamond-shaped holes representing rain or water drops, here piercing the clay, while an engraved zigzag line below evokes the resulting water bodies. We are thus provided with an Olmec vision of their cosmos in which the heavens and the water-laden clouds bring the fertilizing rains, which will then become the seas, lakes and ponds. This exceptional symbolic imagery refers to the three levels of our world: celestial, terrestrial, but also, by implication, to the Watery Underworld, through the water above it.

Beyond the amazing richness of its iconography and symbolic meaning, this sculpture of great realism is also a real sublimation of the figurines known as “Baby Face”. These figures, often represented in a seated position, are distinguishable through their plump bodies and their chubby face, typical of the babies, and are characteristic of the Olmec culture. This one is particularly striking with its big size, its harmony of proportions and its intense expressivity. The precise features and the beauty of the material demonstrate the perfect mastery of the artists from that era and is a magnificent example of the Olmec art.

The Olmec civilization developed, between 1500 and 400 B.C., in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, roughly in what are the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Its political, religious and cultural influence extended all across Mesoamerica and almost all of the later cultures carry indisputable signs of its heritage. Through their long-lasting supremacy and their invaluable legacy, the Olmecs are considered as the mother civilization of Mesoamerica.

Provenance: Ancient European collection since 1968.

Bibliographic referencesK. A. TAUBE, « The Rainmakers: The Olmec and Their Contribution to Mesoamerican Belief and Ritual », in The Olmec World. Ritual and Rulership, exh. cat., 16th December 1995 – 25th February 1996, The Art Museum, Princeton University, pp. 83-103.