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Miguel Gleason with the ‘Headdress of Cuauhtemoc’

Recently rediscovered ‘Headdress of Cuauhtémoc’

We are indebted to Miguel Gleason (pictured), Mexican researcher and author, for this concise report into his recent rediscovery of what may prove to be one of the handful of surviving pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican featherwork pieces in the world...

Pic 1: The Aztec leatherwork object used until recently as a paten and found in a convent
Pic 1: The Aztec leatherwork object used until recently as a paten and found in a convent (Click on image to enlarge)

The headdress was catalogued as ‘Headdress of Cuauhtémoc’ in the 19th century, both in the inventory of Eugene Boban and in records of the Ethnography Museum at the Trocadero in Paris. Boban’s entry reads: ‘Object belonging to the last Emperor of Mexico, Cuauhtemoctzin, offered to the National Museum of Mexico by the Austrian Emperor through Maximilian’. And Ernest Hamy, founder of the first ethnographical museum in Paris, claimed that the costume piece belonged ‘to the victim of Cortés, Guatimozin’. Armed with his broad knowledge of Mexico as well as Boban’s research, Hamy managed even to identify the closed flowers of the headdress as crocuses, which used to flourish long ago at Chapultepec.
Whether or not it actually belonged to Cuauhtémoc, the importance of this object is immense: if pre-Hispanic it would join a select group of rare pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican artefacts to have survived to this day: only seven objects of this type are known to exist in the world today. Three are in Vienna – the famous ‘Headdress of Moctezuma’, a chimalli shield and a fan. Two are in Stuttgart – large and finely manufactured chimalli shields. The other two are in Mexico; interestingly the Chimalli in Chapultepec Castle used to be housed in Austria and was brought back to Mexico by the Emperor Maximiliano. The last object (pic 1) was discovered recently in a convent: it had served as a paten (Eucharist plate) and chalice cover during mass.

Pic 2: The recently rediscovered ‘Headdress of Cuauhtémoc’
Pic 2: The recently rediscovered ‘Headdress of Cuauhtémoc’ (Click on image to enlarge)

This ‘Headdress of Cuauhtemoc’ (pic 2) may prove to be the eighth extant example of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican featherwork. It is certainly one of the most widely travelled of all pre-Hispanic artefacts. Made in Mesoamerica, it was brought to Europe probably in the 16th century, residing for centuries in Austria; it returned to Mexico with Maximilian only to make the journey to Europe once more in the 19th century on the death of Maximilian. It is now conserved in the storerooms of the Quai Branly museum in Paris. This is well documented (see above) – its story is similar to that of the Chimalli in the museum at Chapultepec Castle, except that the latter stayed in Mexico, unlike the example here.
In the historic records held at Quai Branly Museum (previously the Museum of Mankind and before that the Trocadero Ethnographic Museum) we find the following: ‘This piece was one of several pieces belonging to Maximilian of Austria that were stolen after the events of Querétaro; it was sold by an Indian to a collector of antiques who brought it to Paris. It passed from Boban to Alphonse Pinart and subsequently to the State’.

This summary is only a first approximation, as the piece will need to be researched more thoroughly, holding as it does considerable mystery. Just as it might not have been a headdress, it might not have belonged to Cuauhtémoc. After publication of my book I was granted the opportunity to view the original: my first surprise was its diminutive size – the diameter of the central cavity, where the head would have been, measuring a mere 8.5 cm. The diameter of the open headdress, including the feathers representing flowers, is only 28 cm.
The restorer at the Museum, with long experience of studying this type of object, confirms that it is certainly of ancient manufacture.

Photos by and courtesy of Miguel Gleason.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 23rd 2017

Featherwork shield in Chapultepec Castle

Learn more of Miguel Gleason’s research in Europe...

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