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The Dumbarton Oaks ‘Aztec’ style Birthing Figure

Aztec ‘Birthing Figure’

We are most grateful to Dr. Miriam Doutriaux of the Pre-Columbian Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (Washington, USA), for writing specially for us this short article on a highly unusual Aztec-style artefact that has captured the imagination of all who view it...

Pic 1: Tlazolteotl wearing a flayed human skin, detail of Codex Borbonicus folio 13
Pic 1: Tlazolteotl wearing a flayed human skin, detail of Codex Borbonicus folio 13 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Dumbarton Oaks Birthing Figure is striking, powerful, and entirely unparalleled. This Aztec-style sculpture of a woman giving birth conveys well the agony and ecstasy of childbirth. It is expertly carved in a hard, speckled stone called aplite, and has long impressed viewers including artists, scholars, and prominent collectors of Pre-Columbian art. Its unique iconography and carving have also sparked a lively debate about its origins and authenticity.
First mentioned in an 1899 publication by the French anthropologist E.T. Hamy, the sculpture has been compared to a representation of the goddess Tlazolteotl in the act of childbirth, featured in the Codex Borbonicus (pic 1). This goddess, whose name translates as eater of filth, was associated with sexuality and the purification of sins. In the codices, she wears a large cotton headdress and crescent-shaped ornaments on her nose and/or clothing. Her mouth is blackened with filth.

The Birthing Figure sculpture is unusual in that it features none of Tlazolteotl’s usual attributes. The figure is naked and unadorned, unlike any other carving of an Aztec deity. Since the 1960s, scholars have pointed to other unusual features, such as the figure’s sharp edges and impeccably straight hair. Some have suggested that the carving might not be the work of Aztec carvers. A 2002 examination of the piece under scanning electron microscope (SEM) confirmed that much of the carving was done using modern rotary tools. It appears that the Dumbarton Oaks Birthing Figure was carved – or perhaps re-carved – during the 19th century.
The sculpture’s history is worth mentioning. At the dawn of the 20th century, it circulated among several members of France’s Academy of Sciences, and was documented by the anthropologist E.T. Hamy, who created a plaster cast for the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. By the early 1930s, the figure was in the possession of the Parisian art dealer Charles Ratton, who sold it to New York-based art dealer and collector, Joseph Brummer. Brummer treasured the piece as part of his personal collection until his death in 1947. It was then that Robert Woods Bliss, founder of Dumbarton Oaks, acquired the Birthing Figure. He put it on display, first at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and from 1963, at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C.

Pic 2: The ‘golden idol’ from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’
Pic 2: The ‘golden idol’ from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

The Birthing Figure has appeared in many books, exhibit catalogues, and other publications. It has also inspired numerous artistic endeavors. The Surrealist photographer Man Ray created a four-part photomontage (ca. 1932) that highlighted the piece’s dynamic lines. The painter Diego Rivera included the sculpture in a mural about the history of Mexican medicine (1953-54). The artist Eduardo Paolozzi fashioned an oversized copy in papier mâché that he included in a traveling exhibition of his artwork (1988). Arguably the most famous reincarnation of the figure is as the Golden Idol in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (pic 2). An internet search reveals countless other creative works inspired by the Aztec-style sculpture.

An exhibition currently on view at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. details the Birthing Figure’s history, significance, and broad influence. Featuring original artworks and a variety of photographic and other reproductions, it illustrates one object’s powerful hold on the human imagination.

Pic 3: Dorothy Wade’s impromptu sketch of the Birthing Figure
Pic 3: Dorothy Wade’s impromptu sketch of the Birthing Figure (Click on image to enlarge)

• Evans, Susan Toby 2010 Ancient Mexican Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 3. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
• Grossman, Wendy A. 2008 Man Ray’s Lost and Found Photographs: Arts of the Americas in Context. Journal of Surrealism and the Americas 2 (1):114-139
• Hamy, E. T. 1899 Commentaire Explicatif. In Codex Borbonicus; Manuscrit Mexicain De La Bibliothèque Du Palais Bourbon (Livre Divinatoire Et Rituel Figuré), pp. 1-24. E. Leroux, Paris
• Hamy, E. T. 1906 Note Sur Une Statuette Mexicaine. Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris III (1):1-5.
• Walsh, Jane McLaren 2008 The Dumbarton Oaks Tlazolteotl: Getting beneath the Surface. Journal de la Société des Américanistes 94 (1):7-43.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: courtesy and © Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC
• Pic 1: image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 2: from Wikipedia
• Pic 3: Well, we couldn’t resist including this (see comment, below). In Dorothy’s words - I had to copy her on another paper so it would be dark enough. The markers I used to color her actually look like stone. The image I sketched from wasn’t as detailed as she actually is from the ones I saw later on the internet, but birth is beautiful in whatever form. A true gift to be cherished. Thank you, Dorothy!

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 22nd 2013

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Mexicolore replies: Cheers Dorothy! Happy New Year! And keep up the sketching...
Mexicolore replies: We’d love to see your sketch, Dorothy! Many thanks for this. Looking forward to hearing back from you... (We’re delighted to include Dorothy’s sketch, above).