Aztec Featherwork


This sixteenth-century liturgical headdress is probably the most famous piece of featherwork in the world. Brought to Austria before 1575 by an unknown traveler, who had acquired it from an unknown source in Mexico, it is once again on exhibit — after long years of conservation work — at Vienna’s Museum für Völkerkunde.

The green plumes, of course, are those of 500-year-old Resplendent Quetzals. The blues are the loveliest of Lovely Cotinga feathers, and the headdress is also said to incorporate feathers of Squirrel Cuckoos, kingfishers, and Roseate Spoonbills. Whoever created this object, you can’t fault their taste.

This restoration is at least the second to have been carried out since the headdress came to Vienna.

Brought from Schloss Ambras to the Belvedere in the early nineteenth century, it was “discovered,” apparently in storage, by Ferdinand von Hochstetter in the late 1870s. There was great puzzlement as to just what it was, and the 1878 restoration ordered by Hochstetter proceeded on the belief that these were the remains of a kind of battle standard, an assumption that “resulted in the object’s loss of the three-dimensional shape.”

A century and a half later, that may seem to have been a terrible mistake, but I think it’s more than understandable, given the exotic singularity of the object. In fact, though flattening the headdress did violence to its original form and concealed its original function, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to it from the standpoint of preservation.

The exhibit includes another nine Mexican featherwork objects from the sixteenth century, including a “painting” done in hummingbird feathers, similar to this one in the Imperial Treasury:

Vienna is already my favorite city in the world. And it just got better.

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