Feathers and colored paper laid down on wood, in gilt wood frame; Wings: 19 x 6 1/4 in. (48.3 x 15.9 cm); Center: 19 x 12 1/2 in. (48.3 x 31.8 cm)
Gift of Coudert Brothers, 1888 (88.3.1)
Franciscan missionaries landed in Mexico with Cortés in 1519 and were active from the start in evangelizing the native people of the former Aztec empire. After the Spanish Conquest they set up schools to instruct the children of the native elites as well as workshops to turn indigenous artistic efforts away from idolatry and toward the celebration of Christian rites. One of the native arts that most impressed the newcomers was "feather mosaic" (arte plumario in Spanish, amantecayotl in Nahuatl), practiced by specially trained and gifted Aztec nobles. Hummingbird feathers from the Yucatán had long been a component of tribute payments to the Aztec rulers, and the Spanish appear to have enjoyed the continuation of this custom.
The images created by laying down these infinitesimally small feathers utilized their iridescent qualities to produce a spectacular effect. Only a very few examples of the earliest Christian feather mosaics survive, as the medium is so inherently fragile; only a fraction retain a semblance of their original radiant colors.
A considerable number of the surviving examples of this prized mediumframed images of saints or objects for liturgical use, such as bishop's miterswere sent to Europe as diplomatic gifts and have been preserved in church treasuries or Kunstkammers.
This is one of only three surviving examples of Mexican featherwork sacras (tablets placed on the altar and incorporating words from the Catholic Mass). Both the lettering and images were based on European models. Remnants of the feathers' iridescence are visible above the heads of the apostles Peter and Paul in the wings, above the Crucifixion and the Last Supper in the central panel, and in the majuscule (elaborate initial letter). The folding frame would have protected the fragile medium.