Portrait Jar Depicting a Blind Man, Moche IV, A.D. 400 - 500
Tan pottery with brown, white, and black paint
9 x 8 5/8 in. (22.9 x 21.9 cm)
Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, 1973
Made during the apogee of the Moche people of the north coast of Peru, this painted ceramic exemplifies the portrait jar, so-called because of the naturalistic, three-dimensional rendering of individual facial features. This portrait jar is relatively unusual within the genre, because it depicts a blind man wearing a simple cloth headdress and because it lacks the stirrup-spout handle of most Moche portrait jars.
The Moche culture--named for a major site in the Moche River Valley near the present-day city of Trujillo, Peru--coalesced in the third century A.D. and rapidly expanded northward as far as the Piura Valley to flourish in numerous coastal river valleys that drained westward from the Andes mountains into the Pacific Ocean. At least several Moche states, each with an urban capital, are thought to have coexisted during the next three centuries, the largest being located in the southern part of the region at Moche.
Members of the Moche elite were accorded lavish burials, the most prestigious typically commanding the largest number of grave offerings. Prominent among these offerings were modeled and painted ceramics, such as the Oberlin portrait jar, that are characterized by simple, compact, and volumetric forms with smooth, polished surfaces. All scientifically excavated Moche vessels come from burial sites.
The individuals and scenes depicted on these vessels provide a wealth of information about the everyday life, beliefs, and rituals of a people who, as far as we know, did not have a written script and so left no written records. Muchic (Mochica), the language that their descendants spoke at the time of the Spanish conquest, is no longer spoken.
Moche vessels are assigned to one of five periods, known as Moche I-V, on the basis of formal analysis. In the case of pots with stirrup-spouts, for example, the thickness and profile of the spouts tell us the period to which it belongs, whereas on vessels with fine-line painted decorations on the outer surface, the amount of detail and relative size of areas of solid color are reliable indicators of relative date.
Dating the Oberlin portrait jar, which has neither a stirrup-spout nor fine-line decoration, depends heavily on comparisons with datable stirrup-spout portrait jars.1 While the earliest portrait jars (ca. 100 B.C.) are relatively generalized, later examples are highly realistic, with some faces expressing such emotions as laughter or sadness. The high degree of realism found in the Oberlin portrait jar is comparable to that in jars produced during Moche IV (A.D. 400-500). By this time the Moche were using molds for most of their portrait jars (on the making of this jar, see Technical Data).
The Oberlin portrait jar belongs to a small group of ceramic depictions of individuals who are blind in one or both eyes and who appear to have enjoyed some importance in Moche society. Moche portrait jars almost certainly represent individuals of high status, many of whom are thought to have been key officials, if not rulers. Even those who appear to be blind seem otherwise healthy; and when they are depicted on full-figure vessels, they are never bound, deprived of their clothing, or otherwise marked with traits identifying them as enemy prisoners. It has been suggested that blind individuals and other physically deformed people were believed to have certain supernatural powers, and thus enjoyed special privileges and duties in Moche society.2
Portrait jars often include a headdress, probably indicative of office or rank, but since a single individual may appear wearing different headdresses, exactly what each particular headdress connotes is in most cases unknown. The Oberlin man wears a simple cloth headdress tied in the front with a rounded flap at the back. His large ear spools are typical of high-status Andean males.
Three deep scars appear to either side of the Oberlin man's mouth. Such distinguishing marks are not uncommon in Mochica portrait jars and may represent battle scars. A frog is painted on each of the man's cheeks, and quadrupeds were once painted over his eyebrows;3 these decorations may reflect either the known Moche practice of tattooing or the more common face painting. The exact significance of these particular animal motifs is unknown, but they probably served to help identify the individual portrayed.
With André Emmerich Gallery, New York, from whom purchased in 1973
New York, Center for African Art, 1990. Likeness and Beyond: Portraits from Africa and the World. 14 February - 12 August. Cat. no. 95.
Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 31, no. 1 (1973-74), p. 5, fig. 2.
The jar appears to have been modeled by hand out of red clay, possibly using a molded form as a base. It was almost certainly fired. A thin, fugitive black slip was applied to create the hair and facial decorations, while the hat and ear spools were painted with a thicker, buff-colored slip.4 A flat band that extends down over each ear, as well as the scars on both sides of the mouth, were also painted black, while the empty eye sockets were painted white.
The jar bears signs of extensive burnishing with stone or bone tools, particularly on the face. The face is pitted with a number of tiny white circles with small dark depressions at the center. There is evidence of surface losses beneath the nose, on the front of the right ear spool, on the left side of the hair, on the underside of the jar, and just beneath the chin. A possible sign of repair is detectable on the interior, in the lower rear part of the hat, but there is no evidence of a repair on the exterior. A presumably recent ethanol-soluble varnish has been removed.5
1. The exact region of production cannot be determined.
2. In some Moche fine-line paintings, individuals who appear to be blind hold musical instruments such as rattles, flutes, panpipes, and ocarinas, suggesting that they were musicians; in other fine-line paintings, similar figures form part of a procession. See Elizabeth P. Benson, The Mochica: A Culture of Peru (New York, 1972), pp. 68-70; and Alan R. Sawyer, Ancient Peruvian Ceramics: The Nathan Cummings Collection (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1966), p. 41.
3. Although the quadrupeds have nearly disappeared, the long tail of the one over the man's right eyebrow suggests that they may have represented foxes.
4. Laura Srygley, "An Analysis of a Moche Portrait Jar of a Blind Man," student paper, Oberlin College, 3 May 1981.
5. This varnish was identified by Richard Buck in a letter dated 16 January 1973.