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Mexicolore contributor Claudia Brittenham

Did the Maya and Aztecs take feathers for headdresses from birds other than quetzals?

We are most grateful to Claudia Brittenham, Associate Professor in the Department of Art History, University of Chicago (USA), for this illuminating extended answer to a question from a school pupil in our ‘Ask the Experts’ series (follow link below).

Pic 1: Aztec featherwork shield in the collection of the Welt Museum, Vienna. The feathers used to make this shield come from many different birds, including the blue cotinga, roseate spoonbill, scarlet macaw, quetzal, and oriole
Pic 1: Aztec featherwork shield in the collection of the Welt Museum, Vienna. The feathers used to make this shield come from many different birds, including the blue cotinga, roseate spoonbill, scarlet macaw, quetzal, and oriole (Click on image to enlarge)

Yes, the Maya and the Aztecs used the feathers of many different kinds of birds in their art. In addition to the quetzal, especially precious feathers came from brightly-colored tropical birds such as the lovely cotinga, macaw, parrot, hummingbird, oropendula, emerald toucanet, and troupial. However, more common feathers of domesticated birds such as ducks and turkeys were also used. Feathers were incorporated into all sorts of clothing and accessories, including headdresses, capes, loincloths, armbands, backracks, shields (pic 1), banners, and fans. Kings frequently wore magnificent feathers, as did images of the gods, and they were also an important part of elite clothing for dance and for war.

Pic 2: The feather merchant, Florentine Codex Book 10, folio 41r
Pic 2: The feather merchant, Florentine Codex Book 10, folio 41r (Click on image to enlarge)

Vivid color was a large part of what made feathers precious to Mesoamerican people. Feathers owe their intense hues to two different processes: pigmentation and structural coloration. The pigment melanin produces brown and black colors, while carotenoid pigments produce yellows, oranges, and reds. The cellular structure of the feather also may refract light in particular ways, often yielding white or blue color. The two kinds of coloration may occur together: for example, green feathers often result from the combination of blue structural coloration and yellow pigmentation. Structural coloration can also yield a special phenomenon called iridescence, where a feather appears to be a different color when seen at different angles.

Pic 3: This Aztec feather headdress in the collection of the Welt Museum in Vienna features the feathers of five different kinds of birds: quetzal, lovely cotinga, roseate spoonbill, squirrel cuckoo, and a fifth unidentified species
Pic 3: This Aztec feather headdress in the collection of the Welt Museum in Vienna features the feathers of five different kinds of birds: quetzal, lovely cotinga, roseate spoonbill, squirrel cuckoo, and a fifth unidentified species (Click on image to enlarge)

In Mesoamerica, quetzal feathers are notable for this property, appearing blue from some angles and green from others, often with a shimmering golden overlay. Hummingbirds and ocellated turkeys also have iridescent feathers. Although it was far less desirable, feathers could also be dyed to achieve particular colors. The Florentine Codex cautions against the bad feather worker, who is “a [fraudulent] embellisher of feathers, a treater of feathers with glue. He sells old, worn feathers, damaged feathers. He dyes feathers, he dyes those which are faded, dirty, yellow, darkened, smoked” (Book 10, Chapter 16; see pic 2).

Pic 4: Detail of the feather headdress in Vienna. Whole as well as trimmed feathers are visible in this detail
Pic 4: Detail of the feather headdress in Vienna. Whole as well as trimmed feathers are visible in this detail (Click on image to enlarge)

We can see how different kinds of feathers were combined to great visual effect by Aztec featherworkers, known as amanteca, in the famous “penacho de Moctezuma” (pic 3). This feather headdress was probably not a gift from the emperor Moteuczoma to the conquistador Hernán Cortés, as legend has it, but it is still a marvelous example of Aztec featherwork. It is now in the collection of the Welt Museum in Vienna, and a replica is on display in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. Over 450 untrimmed tail plumes from the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) make up the greater part of the headdress. This is a stunning display of extravagance, since each male quetzal bird has only two of these long, flexible tail feathers (called coverts), and these elusive and solitary birds live in mountain cloud forests far from the Aztec capital. Smaller feathers from quetzal wings echo the color below (pic 4).

Pic 5: Aztec featherworkers were called ‘amanteca’. In the upper left, a merchant carries feathers from distant lands in his backpack; featherworkers make them into headdresses and fans below. Florentine Codex, Book 9, folio 62r
Pic 5: Aztec featherworkers were called ‘amanteca’. In the upper left, a merchant carries feathers from distant lands in his backpack; featherworkers make them into headdresses and fans below. Florentine Codex, Book 9, folio 62r (Click on image to enlarge)

The bright blue feathers come from the lovely cotinga (Cotinga amabilis), while the dark red plumes of the roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) are barely visible above the blue. Brown feathers from the squirrel cuckoo (Piaya cayana) form a backdrop for these brilliantly-colored feathers and gold appliqués, while other brown feathers used primarily on the reverse of the headdress come from a fifth species, which has not yet been identified. This headdress combines the two principal modes of Aztec featherwork: untrimmed feathers are bound into a net-like frame, allowing each feather to move independently, while other feathers are cut and glued into place on a cloth backing. The person who wore this headdress would have been converted into a dazzling spectacle, surrounded by brilliant and shimmering color which changed subtly with each breath or movement.

Pic 6: Feathers were a key part of the tribute paid by the province of Soconusco. Over 2,400 bundles of assorted feathers were part of the semi-annual tribute, along with 160 full bird skins and 800 bundles of quetzal tail feathers. Codex Mendoza fol 47r
Pic 6: Feathers were a key part of the tribute paid by the province of Soconusco. Over 2,400 bundles of assorted feathers were part of the semi-annual tribute, along with 160 full bird skins and 800 bundles of quetzal tail feathers. Codex Mendoza fol 47r (Click on image to enlarge)

All of these feathers came from lands distant from the Aztec capital. The roseate spoonbill is a coastal wading bird, while the squirrel cuckoo inhabits a broader range along the hot coastal lowlands. The lovely cotinga’s territory lies to the south and east in the modern states of Veracuz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas in Mexico, extending south into Guatemala and Central America, while the quetzal is confined to the cloud forests of Chiapas, Guatemala, and Honduras. All of these feathers - and many others - came to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan as trade or tribute (pix 5 and 6).

Pic 7: Red Temple, Cacaxtla. The old merchant god painted at the bottom of the stairwell carries feathers in a bundle on his backpack
Pic 7: Red Temple, Cacaxtla. The old merchant god painted at the bottom of the stairwell carries feathers in a bundle on his backpack (Click on image to enlarge)

Indeed, the history of Aztec featherworking is also a story of imperial expansion. Book 9 of the Florentine Codex explains that the first Aztec featherworkers used “common” feathers of local herons, ducks, and turkeys to make their feather ornaments; new kinds of tropical feathers were added as Aztec territories grew during the reigns of Ahuitzotl (r. 1486-1502) and Moteuczoma II (r. 1502-1520).

Pic 8: Teotihuacan, Tetitla apartment compound. The deity images in this mural wear green feathers in elaborate bird headdresses
Pic 8: Teotihuacan, Tetitla apartment compound. The deity images in this mural wear green feathers in elaborate bird headdresses (Click on image to enlarge)

But trade in feathers between the tropical south and the Central Mexican highlands also existed long before the Aztec empire. Feathers are among the precious goods on the old merchant god’s backpack in the murals of the Red Temple at Cacaxtla, Tlaxcala, ca. AD 800 (pic 7). The old god stands at the bottom of a stairwell whose walls are painted with maize plants sprouting human heads; climbing the stair simultaneously replicated the merchant’s journey from the hot lowlands to the Central Mexican highlands and the ascent from the underworld where cacao and maize grew in captivity before the creation of the present era. Traveling back even further in time, the murals of the powerful city of Teotihuacan, AD 100-600, show priests and deities wearing elaborate feather headdresses, again testifying to trade with the tropical lowlands (pic 8).

Pic 9: Bonampak Structure 1, Room 1, quetzal dancers on the south wall. Reconstruction painting by Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby
Pic 9: Bonampak Structure 1, Room 1, quetzal dancers on the south wall. Reconstruction painting by Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby

For the ancient Maya, we have neither physical evidence of surviving featherwork nor textual evidence describing featherworking practices. But elaborate feather headdresses, costumes, and accessories are represented in many stone sculptures, and also in mural paintings, like those of Structure 1 at Bonampak, ca. AD 792. Entering Room 1 at Bonampak, one sees royal youths with elaborate feathered backracks performing what is specifically named as a “quetzal dance” (pic 9; the decipherment is by Stephen Houston).

Pic 10: Bonampak Structure 1, Room 1, quetzal dancers getting dressed on the north wall. Reconstruction painting by Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby
Pic 10: Bonampak Structure 1, Room 1, quetzal dancers getting dressed on the north wall. Reconstruction painting by Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby

Above on the opposite wall, the princes prepare for the dance, donning their heavy backracks with the aid of attendants (pic 10). It is easiest to identify long quetzal feathers, but red feathers and brilliant yellow feathers (perhaps from the oropendula, Psarocolius Montezuma) also appear in the paintings. Yet even in the Maya area, feathers were an expensive luxury, and throughout the murals, many nobles wear only a single quetzal feather.

Pic 11: ‘Mass of St. Gregory’, 1539. This “feather painting” adapts Aztec featherworking technique to Christian subjects
Pic 11: ‘Mass of St. Gregory’, 1539. This “feather painting” adapts Aztec featherworking technique to Christian subjects (Click on image to enlarge)

Throughout Mesoamerica, feathers were dazzling wealth indeed. They were prized for their splendid color as well as the difficulty of their acquisition. Their fragility and the need for periodic renewal only increased their value. After the Spanish conquest, featherworkers transformed their arts to represent new subjects, making “feather paintings” Christian devotional images (pic 11).

Further reading:-
• Baumgartner, Walter. “The Aztec Feather Shield in Vienna: Problems of Conservation.” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos (2006), http://nuevomundo.revues.org/1447
• Castelló Yturbide, Teresa, ed. The Art of Featherwork in Mexico. Mexico City: Fomento Cultural Banamex, 1993
• Feest, Christian. “Vienna’s Mexican Treasures: Aztec, Mixtec, and Tarascan Works from 16th Century Austrian Collections.” Archiv für Völkerkunde 44 (1990), available online (link below)
• Haag, Sabine, Alfonso de Maria y Campos, Lilia Rivero Weber, and Christian Feest, eds. El Penacho del México Antiguo. Vienna: Museum für Völkerkunde, ZKF Publishers, and CONACULTA, 2012
• Houston, Stephen D. “A quetzal feather dance at Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico.” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 70 (1984): 127-138
• Houston, Stephen D., Claudia Brittenham, Cassandra Mesick, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Christina Warinner. Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009, pp. 44-49
• Magaloni Kerpel, Diana Isabel. “Real and Illusory Feathers: Pigments, Painting Techniques, and the Use of Color in Ancient Mesoamerica.” Nuevo Mundo/Mundos Nuevos (2006), http://nuevomundo.revues.org/1462
• Navarijo Ornelas, María de Lourdes. “Plumas... Tocados: Una vieja historia de identidades perdidas.” In La Pintura Mural Prehispánica en México II: Área Maya - Bonampak - Tomo II: Estudios, edited by Beatriz de la Fuente and Leticia Staines Cicero, 177-191. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 1998
• Russo, Alessandra. “Plumes of Sacrifice: Transformations in Sixteenth-Century Mexican Feather Art.” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 42 (2002): 226-250
• Sahagún, Bernadino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. 13 vols. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1950-1982. Especially Books 9, 10, and 11
• Wolf, Gerhard, Alessandra Russo, and Diana Fane, eds. Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe. Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2015.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 3 & 4: Photos courtesy Museum of Ethnology (Museum für Völkerkunde), Vienna, Austria
• Pix 2 & 5: Florentine Codex images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 6: Image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London 1938
• Pix 7 & 8: Photos by and courtesy of Claudia Brittenham
• Pix 9 & 10: Reconstruction paintings by Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby © Bonampak Documentation Project, 2002
• Pic 11: The ‘Mass of St. Gregory’, feathers on wood panel, 68 x 56 cm, México, 1539. Musée de Jacobins, Auch. Possibly by Diego Huanitzin. From Wikimedia Commons (Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 05th 2015

The original question (June 2015)

Vienna’s Mesoamerican Featherworks

Especial Birds in the Americas

‘Did they take feathers equally from male and female quetzal birds? ‘

All about birds: the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Read “Vienna’s Mexican Treasures: Aztec, Mixtec, and Tarascan Works from 16th Century Austrian Collections”

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