Introduction to the Iconography

Introduction to the iconography of ancient Peru

Close examination of the iconography of the art objects of ancient Peru (textiles, ceramics, metal objects and other materials, and as wall reliefs and paintings) reveals mostly images with a complementary symbolism. These examinations focus on a period of about 3000 years, from about 1500 B.C. to 1532 A.D., and extend substantially across the relevant Peruvian cultures Chavin, Paracas, Recuay, Moche, Nazca, Tiahuanaco-Huari, Lambayeque, Chimú, Chancay and Inca.  They also include samples of many small cultures, as well as the today neighboring countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

A clear result of such examination is that the divine image not only evolves stylistically over three thousand years (realistic, abstract, geometric, etc.) but also changes in relation to its various prototypes (zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, ornithomorph). Also, the very imaginative interpretations or representations of the respective artists have to be considered. The term artist is used intentionally because the representations are rendered with great artistic skill. Whether the weavers and the artisans were identic with the artists cannot be proven unequivocally.

All divine images are supplemented by symbols of earth and water which, in combination, represent the concept of fertility.  Both symbols represent the divine which, in company with the supreme deity, create the basis for the wellbeing of the people. The water god and the earth goddess are mostly presented as attributive symbols of the supreme deity. However many examples depict the water god and the earth goddess either singly or jointly symbolizing water or earth.

The symbolism of these two gods consisted initially of the step-shaped symbol of andenes (for the earth or soil) and the symbol of the meander or the wave (for water). The two symbols in combination form the step-wave. Chavín converted this symbolism probably for artistic reasons into the snake wave symbolism (snakehead and short snake body). In the Late Intermediate Period other symbols with the same meaning have been added: Curvy shapes with spikes, tassel-shaped objects in single or multiple form, as well as other different designs.

The step wave, the snake waver and the aforementioned other forms occur singly or in combination with the divine image of Chavín and all subsequent cultures. Here the diverse artistic variations have to be considered to allow their identification. These variations reflect on the representations of the gods, which are depicted in a variety of designs, including in hybrid beings. Here, in principle, it is assumed that these extremely diverse variants have only symbolic value and their sole purpose is to enhance the divine image.

From Moche to Chancay, and beyond, the seabirds are very clearly depicted in many presentations. These indicate that the seabirds, or coastal birds, obviously represented a sort of divine status because they were indicators of the devastating impact of the weather phenomenon “El Niño” on the abundance of fish. They are always shown in close connection with the divine image, because presumably they were considered as facilitating the return of the fish. However, a quite different meaning is ascribed to the Raptor, the bird of prey introduced by Chavín, which changed the feline god to a hybrid god and, in subsequent cultures, had significant influence on the design of the divine image.

The fertility symbolism as part of the divine image was essential to the religion proclaimed by the priesthood which gives credence to the slogan “Water to Earth.”. This obviously allowed the priests to influence water management and agriculture in ancient Peru, which in turn promoted abundant harvests and established the preconditions for a positive population development. Under these conditions, the various Peruvian ethnic groups were able to develop into major civilizations.