Theses Doctoral

Extraordinary Bodies: Death, Divinity, and Distortion in the Art of Postclassic Mexico

Gassaway, William Tyler

The dissertation examines the appearance and meanings of corporeal anomaly in the arts of Postclassic Mexico (AD 900–1521). Drawing specifically upon those categories of the human or divine body that are regularly termed aberrant, grotesque, or otherwise “deformed” by scholars of Mesoamerican art, the images discussed here include dwarfs, hunchbacks, twins, animal-human hybrids, disfigured deities, and disembodied limbs, among others. While similarly distinctive images can be identified among earlier Mesoamerican artistic traditions, the variety of idiosyncratic bodies that pervade the arts of the Postclassic period, in addition to the breadth of available historical sources, make it the ideal lens through which to analyze many of the most fundamental issues of indigenous Mexican visual culture.
Relative to Classic Maya art, a tradition of naturalism and linear elegance greatly resembling that of early modern European painting and sculpture, the art of the ancient Mixtecs, Toltecs, and Nahuas (Aztecs) is sometimes perceived as rigid, laconic, and hulking—even brutish—by comparison. Featuring complex figural abstractions and esoteric symbolism, these later traditions are further distinguished by the specificity of their physical deformations, including twisted faces, palsied limbs, contorted spines, extra appendages, and other unnatural anatomies. Consequently, Postclassic art offers an inventory of difference that is unique not only among Mesoamerican art but among Western traditions as well, making it doubly challenging to interpret its motivations and significance. However, by analyzing the role of such extraordinary bodies within the broader anthropocentric worldviews of ancient Mesoamerica, this study offers useful strategies for unpacking the complex religious, political, and formal motivations that govern much of Postclassic visual culture.
As I argue, extraordinary bodies share a common identity as transformational characters occupying specifically transitory states. As shape-shifters, gatekeepers, divine conduits, and shepherds, it is in the liminal regions of existence—the “betwixt and between” of reality and myth—where such figures live and serve as the custodians of heaven and earth. With tremendous regularity, their irregular forms indicate and define the various “borderlands” of Mesoamerican ideology, from the hinterlands of the urban center to the margins and gutters of hand-painted books. In short, a distinctly Postclassic notion of physical deformation stands at the threshold between creation and dissolution, center and periphery, life and death.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Pasztory, Esther
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 3, 2019