Ghoulish Greetings II

This is my second attempt at this post, the first having mysteriously disappeared, spooky.

 In my ongoing effort to better appreciate the elusive qualities of Mesoamerican art, the Better Half aand I spent our friday date night exploring the galleries of Ancient American art at LACMA. It really is a wonderful gallery, very broad in its scope, a true treasure trove. But amongst the calligraphic beauty of gracefully decorated Mayan ceramics and the beguiling jadeite baubles, there are many ghoulish artifacts of a culture long lost.

Mosaic Skull

Western Oaxaco or Puebla


human skull with inlaid turquoise, jadeite and shell


 Mexico is of course well known for its ornamental use of skulls ; living in LA, particularly this time of year, it is difficult to avoid their toothy grins. But as I explore Mesoamerican art more thoughtfully I am better understanding the cultural significance of these ghoulish delights. What I had initially dismissed as a taste for the macabre now holds greater significance; renewal of life lies at the heart of this obsession with death.

Given the season, I thought a little sampling of our recent visit was in order.

The following shell pendant is quite a delight, very small and of obvious appeal to modern taste.

Skull Pendant

Mexico, Aztec

1350- 1520



This ceramic censor has similar appeal.

Skull Shaped Censor





 I’m afraid the following hasn’t any charm at all, in fact it is quite terrifying.

It is an image fashioned of basalt in which a priest is garbed in the flayed flesh of a sacrificial victim. This costume, part of a spring equinox ritual, in which the priest is dressed as the god Xipe Totec, Our Lord of the Flayed One. The celebrant will wear this horrifying ensemble for 21 days, at which time, the flesh rotting off his body, he will emerge reborn.


But as my professor wisely pointed out, flaying seems to be a universal vice, one need to look no further then Apollo and Marsyas.

With that point made, I quickly fell off my Eurocentric high-horse.

A play upon Death and the Maiden, the beloved posing for scale and for cuteness.

Male Figure in Guise of Xipe Totec

 Mexico, Aztec




A western version of a similar image, equally ghoulish, but from my perspective more poetic.

Bartolomeo Manfredi

Apollo and Marsyas


oil on canvas

Saint Louis Art Museum

With that, I will close this post, i must rush off to the gym to fend off Death and renew this aging bag of bones.

Have quite a Happy Halloween!

Take care,

Babylon Baroque


12 Responses to “Ghoulish Greetings II”

  1. Thank you,

    And please have a happy Halloween!

  2. The Xipe Totec custom of flaying a sacrifice and then using the skin as a suit for a living recipient always stuck me as repellent and horrific. But then I read an article by an historian who wrote that the recipients were always the most beautiful young men, so that as the skin decayed, split and fell away, perfection would emerge from horror, like the ripe golden corn cob out of the drying husk. That moves the idea quite a long way from Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre!

    Hard to understand such a custom at this remove. It all appears hideously barbaric, not least for the the wretched victims stripped of their skins. But then the crucifixion of Christ and the transubstantiation of wafer and wine into notional flesh and blood seem pretty grotesque to me as an unbeliever. If we can’t even think our ways into the belief systems of people today, we stand little chance of ever understanding the religions of ancient cultures. I remember hearing someone on the radio banging on that the culture of the Ancient Egyptians was grotesque because it glorified death. But it seems to me that anyone looking at the wall-paintings of ancient tombs will be blown away by the vivacity of how the Egyptian afterlife is portrayed as a very earthly paradise, with couples in skiffs hunting wildfowl with throwing sticks and trained cats, while beneath the water life teems in shoals of glittering fish. What’s not to love about a culture that imagines the afterlife to be a continuation of all that is most beautiful and bountiful on earth?

    And here Leonard I will quit wondering about Xipe Totec, and instead wish you and your beloved a Happy Halloween! (-;

  3. babylonbaroque Says:

    I too have heard about the lovely young men, it of course makes sense on some primitive level; and we are all quite primitive I am afraid. Would make an intriguing painting.
    I am , as we speak , working on a painting depicting the Mesoamerican creation myth, the popol vuh. I am deeply fascinated by this tale, fascinated and repulsed… who could ask for anything more?
    I’m still ostensibly Catholic, although increasingly difficult to defend that belief, but yes, our beliefs are difficult to justify. Perhaps i just want to believe in salvation which isn’t so very different from the desire of our Aztec brothers.
    I too will end on a relatively optimistic note, wishing you and your beloved a happy Halloween!
    Take care my friend,

  4. That connection has never occurred to me before. I really appreciate you pointing it out: it’s quite amazing how the ancient Europeans and Mesoamericans had so many things in common, and yet seem so entirely different on the surface. Thanks for your wonderful blog!

    • babylonbaroque Says:

      Well as I pointed out my professor made the point, a wise woman. But yea we do have a lot in common with one another. I’m finding this exploration deeply exciting.
      Thanks for popping in, hope you do so again.
      I checked out your blog, i enjoyed your perspective.
      Take care,

  5. Hey Leonard, You know where else there is amazing Mexican art? Mexico 😉
    Hope your halloween was as lovely as your lacma trip!
    See you in Art!

  6. Can’t help but wonder who the top skull originally belonged to…

  7. babylonbaroque Says:

    Agreed, I was rather disturbed by LACMA’s neutral description of the “material” being human skull, as if human skull was the same as malachite, gold or paper. So oddly detached.

  8. I noticed a while back that a post had vanished. The mysteries of blogging!!!

    I think in the current art parlance the skull might be described as ‘human remains with intervention’!

  9. babylonbaroque Says:

    The mystery was I have clumsy fingers and hit delete from my phone. Lesson being, never edit grammatical errors, on an I-phone while at the gym!
    And yes, human skull with divine intervention, I’ve been thinking a bit about Damien Hirst’s diamond bedazzled skull “For the Love of God”; the Aztec offerings seem less obscene. At least they were trying to prevent the end of the Fifth Sun.
    Good luck with your deadline my friend,

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