For the first time in Europe, in autumn 2009 the musée du quai Branly
will be presenting the legendary and mysterious civilization of Teotihuacan with a landmark exhibition including almost 450 outstanding items.
As a major city in ancient Mexico founded in the first century BC, Teotihuacan enjoyed a period of unrivalled cultural and artistic vitality up to the seventh century A.D. When the Aztecs discovered it abandoned after 600 years, they nicknamed it "the city where men became gods", impressed by its sheer size and beauty. The researches carried out under the auspices of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico over the last 25 years have unearthed some major discoveries enabling us to better understand this ancient culture. The exceptional collection presented here at the musée du quai Branly offers a unique opportunity for the European public to understand the role of this ancient city in the Central American world from a historical, anthropological and mythological viewpoint.
The exhibition opens with one of the most characteristic items of Teotihuacan's art: an outstanding architectural sculpture more than 2 m representing a sacred jaguar recently discovered in the Xalla Palace among the ruins of this mysterious city.
The items exhibited here, 95% of which are from Mexican collections and 5% from European collections, enable visitors to step back into the daily life of this extraordinary city. The colossal and architectural sculptures, murals, ritual masks, votive statues, jewelery and ceramics bear witness to the sheer strength of artistic expression in Teotihuacan. Items found off the site also reveal Teotihuacan's influence throughout Central America during its golden age between 250 and 550 AD.
Teotihuacan: The City of the Gods
Founded around 100 BC, Teotihuacan constantly expanded, eventually becoming a major economic and cultural centre in ancient Mexico. The influence and power of Teotihuacan can be best appreciated through its monumental architecture: the buildings are erected around a central thoroughfare, and laid out according to precise astronomical criteria.
The ruins of Teotihuacan leave us in no doubt of its prodigious territorial and demographic expansion in addition to its political, cultural and artistic life which developed constantly up to the seventh century, enabling us to distinguish five main periods, from the large village to the huge city which held sway over the entire American continent. However the reasons for its decline and fall still remain unexplained. Was it due to famine? A fire? Revolts? Invasions? There is certainly no shortage of theories.
Thanks to the recent excavations which have enabled scientists to broaden and modify their view of Teotihuacan's empire, it has been shown that militarism, the offering of prisoners or the sacrifice of victims (particularly during ceremonies to commemorate the extension of ritual buildings) formed the basis of this unique civilization, which was still scarcely known to us just a few years ago. Religion, the mainstay of Central American culture, also played a primordial role in the life of its inhabitants, hence the monumental size of the sculptures adorning the walls of its famous pyramids.
Situated to the north of the current city of Mexico, Teotihuacan was also a centre for multicultural contact. Numerous items from various periods and locations were found in the city, demonstrating its extraordinary vitality and the presence of foreign populations coming for example from Oaxaca and the Mayan world.
Even today, its influence is such that for several decades now several hundred thousand people gather each year on Teotihuacan's peaks to celebrate the spring equinox.
The importance of this "City of the Gods" in addition to its cultural and artistic richness demonstrate its extraordinary economic, military and religious vitality. It is these specific features, which today continue to generate countless questions, that the musée du quai Branly is honoring with this landmark exhibition.
The Exhibition Trail
Section 1 - An introduction to Teotihuacan
In conformity with Mexican tradition, the exhibition begins with a presentation of one of the most important items from the exhibition: an architectural sculpture of more than 2 m, taking the form of a "sacred jaguar" recently discovered at the Xalla Palace and highly characteristic of Teotihuacan's art.
Video projection and a huge model (10 x 5 meters) enable the visitor to view the topology of the site as we see it today (including its main temples) but above all to understand its spatial organization.
Section 2 - The chronological history of Teotihuacan (100 BC-650 A.D.) in comparison with the rest of the world
The second section in this exhibition is devoted to life in the city of Teotihuacan, in comparison with the major events occurring throughout Europe and Asia. It presents the main phases of its development, from the founding of the city to its decline and fall, events which today still remain unexplained.
Section 3 - Colossal or architectural sculptures and murals
Around 15 items featuring incredible shapes and sizes give the public a chance to learn more about artistic expression in the city. From the second century onwards, the people of Teotihuacan decorated a number of their main buildings with impressive architectural sculptures. The most striking example is that of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, of which several fragments and features are presented here.
The exhibition also informs visitors of the traditions surrounding the decorations featured on the various buildings, pointing out the most striking items (with the aid of a multimedia program) but also the techniques used to produce these amazing frescoes. This part of the exhibition is remarkable for its prestigious selection of murals but also the 15 fragments presented here ranging from naturalism to geometrical abstraction.
Section 4 - Politics, economics and society: hierarchy and power, sacrifice and war
The recent excavations in the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent and in the Pyramid of the Moon have made it possible to better understand the city's social organization. The items obtained from these excavations, (which are extremely delicate and presented for the first time here in Europe) in addition to a selection from the prestigious collection belonging to the painter Diego Rivera demonstrate its militarism and its warrior culture.
Section 5 - Religion and views of the universe: Gods, rituals and burial rites in Teotihuacan
Religious and cosmological aspects played a key role in the city of Teotihuacan. The extraordinary items obtained from various types of tomb present among others the god of death, Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc (the God of Water) and Xipe-Totec (who also occurs in the Aztec pantheon). The masks, incense burners and murals complete this pantheon and illustrate both the rituals carried out by the inhabitants of Teotihuacan and their view of the world and of the universe.
Section 6 - Life in Teotihuacan's palaces and homes
Teotihuacan's spatial organization reveals its profoundly urban nature. The exhibition presents a number of architectural items and luxury objects from the palaces but also day-to-day items such as millstones, ceramics or figurines representing the daily life of country people and of the lower social classes. It also presents a selection of items from the treasure trove of the century (statuettes and offerings to deities) discovered in their original colors and exhibited for the first time in Europe.
Section 7 - The splendor of Teotihuacan's arts and crafts: Stones, ceramics and precious jewelery
Teotihuacan's remarkable arts and crafts reveal the highly elaborate and sophisticated techniques used, as seen in the variety of materials including murals, ceramics or lapidary and lithic art, including the largest collection of masks from Teotihuacan ever assembled.
Section 8 - Teotihuacan's relations with the Central American world
The items presented in this last section clearly reveal the existence of contact (in the economic, political, religious and military fields) between the city of Teotihuacan and the other regions of Mexico (the Mayan world, western Mexico, Oaxaca and the Gulf side). They demonstrate the power enjoyed by the city between 250 and 550 AD, which was so prosperous that the Aztecs kept and offered items from the ruins of Teotihuacan centuries after its fall.