At one time in Mesoamerica, feathers, especially those of birds such as the quetzal, were valued like jade and gold, similar to the value feathers had for many indigenous peoples of the Americas.
In Mesoamerica, much of the value was tied to religion, especially to the feathered-serpent god Quetzalcoatl. By the time the Spanish arrived, the most varied and intricate use of feathers in this region was among the Aztecs. the Purhepecha and the Tlaxcaltecs, whose territories were all in central Mexico.
The feathers used were from local and distant sources, with the most prized coming from trade routes leading from Central America. They had a similar value to cocoa beans as a kind of money, since they were light and easy to trade.
The use of feathers varied from being woven into fabric, as decorative elements in garments, as flags to float in the breeze and headdresses. One use of feathers that caught the attention of the conquering Spanish was the painstaking placement of tiny pieces of feathers on a surface to create a kind of painting, often on shield and headdresses.
Cortes sent examples of these to Spain as gifts to the king and others, and even sent a number to Asia. Eventually feathered garments and paintings made their way to a number of European royal families and even to the Vatican. For this reason, most of oldest and best surviving pieces of Mexican featherwork are in European museums.
Instead of destroying the craft (given its religious significance), the Europeans decided to co-opt it in the first century of the colonial period. Native artisans, however, had to stop creating the old designs in favor of images related to the new religion. Sometimes old indigenous abstract elements can be detected along the edges.
The “golden age” of featherwork in colonial Mexico lasted only until the very beginning of the 17th century. The main reason for this was that the Spanish upper caste began to disdain indigenous handcrafts, and much of the religious imagery was produced using oils. Another problem was the serious depletion of the fine feathers of tropical wild birds which gave pre Hispanic and early colonial feather paintings their color and shine.
Featherwork never completely died out, but has never regained its former stature. Feathers are still used on some traditional garments, especially the edges of huipils in Chiapas and the fringes of rebozos in Michoacan. They can also be seen in the garb worn by many traditional dancers, such as the concheros, who can be regularly seen on Mexico City’s main plaza (Zocalo) and other areas. There are even some places that still make feather painting and similar items, but mostly use dyed feathers from domesticated fowl.
It is not possible to return to the making of the early colonial work with tropical bird feathers, primarily because of environmental reasons. Fortunately, the musuems which do have these irreplaceable centuries-old relics have been able to preserve them fairly well.
The featured image is a replica of the so-called Montezuma’s headdress at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Credit Thomas Ledl