16. The Tupinumbá Sacred Mantle

By Amelia Hutchinson (@ameliagraceh_)

‘In my opinion I have never seen anything which for beauty could more delight the human eye’ – Peter Martyr (1519) upon seeing the first feather-works to arrive in Europe.[1]

Feather-work items formed an integral part of early modern Mesoamerican and Andean visual and material culture. Using carefully selected colours and designs to convey messages, these intricately designed items took on many forms, from tapestries to elaborate pieces of clothing. This cloak, once thought to have belonged to Motecuhzoma II, the ninth Emperor of Mexica (r. 1502-1520), is a stunning example. 

Objects were manufactured from feathers using three main techniques: they could be tied together into ‘long, flowing devices such as headdresses and fans’; glued to solid surfaces, forming mosaics on objects such as shields; or spun and woven into textiles. When tied together, as is seen with this resplendent mantle, there were several different techniques for knotting the string, which transformed the way they moved and reflected light. For instance, when feathers were knotted with a single string they would turn more fluidly in all directions, and a second string was thus often added to fix them more firmly in place.[2]

Feathers were not seen as simply raw materials. They were highly valued for their iridescent beauty and the embodied meanings they conveyed. In Mesoamerican and Andean culture, feathers had the literal ability to imbue the wearer with the qualities of the bird whose feathers formed the garment, and thus the type and colour of feather were vitally important. A popular technique of colour modification developed, known as tapirage. This involved plucking the green feathers of parrots, rubbing toad’s blood on the bird’s raw, open pores, and then waiting for new feathers to grow through, which would appear yellow gold,[3] a colour associated with the divine power of the sun. When worn, the sacred feather-cape was not a piece of costume, but allowed individuals to transform into ‘birdlike creatures that… invoked powerful forces’.[4]

Image: Tupinumbá Featherwork Cape, feathers and plant fibres, height: 200 cm, width: 180 cm, c. 17th-century, Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, AAM 5783, © RMAH.

Featured image: Tupinumbá Feather Cape, image from D. Bleichmar, ‘A Stunning and Sacred Cape’, https://huntington.org/verso/stunning-and-sacred-cape.

[1] Cited in S. Hanß (2019), ‘Material Encounters: Knotting Cultures in Early Modern Peru and Spain’, The Historical Journal, 62(3), p. 587.

[2] C. Giuntini (2012), ‘Techniques and Conservation of Peruvian Feather Mosaics’, in H. King (ed.), Peruvian Featherworks: Art of the Precolumbian Era, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 94. 

[3] F. Berdan (2016), ‘Featherworking in the Provinces: A dispersed luxury craft under Aztec hegemony’, Ancient Mesoamerica, 27(1), p. 212.

[4] D. Bleichmar, ‘A Stunning and Sacred Cape’, The Huntington, https://huntington.org/verso/stunning-and-sacred-cape, [Accessed 8 Dec 2022] 2017.

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