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The best of Inca Art and Culture

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The mystery of Inca art and culture is linked to a vast region of land and its inhabitant. We have a general historical knowledge of the Inca civilization and their demise with the arrival of the Spanish conquistador; the Inca were advanced in technologies, astrology, medicine, and social structure. They were exceptional builders despite not having discovered the wheel. This article will introduce the different sectors of Inca art and style.

The best of Inca Art and Culture
Inca Territory

Brief History of Inca Art

The Inca empire peaked in the 12th century and ended by the 15th century. Their empire spanned from northern Ecuador to central Chile and consisted of 12 million inhabitants from more than 100 different ethnic groups. For centuries the pre-Inca groups have waged war with each other to expand their dominion. The Inca have many artistic and cultural achievements, like the fortress complex of Machu Picchu, and Cusco was the center of the realm.

Incas were mainly farmers; they used the harsh topography of the Andean to build an irrigation system by channeling rivers and building terraces for their agriculture. They cultivate corn, potatoes squash; they barter their labor to pay their taxes. Worshipping was a big part of their life.

Machu Picchu Peru
Machu Picchu Peru

Inca Religion

‘The Incas were polytheistic; they worshipped many gods. They believed their gods influenced their daily life and controlled everything in the natural world. Their ruler was also called the ‘‘Sapa Inca’ and was believed to be a semi-God. A myriad of hierarchical priests led by high priests (hullac umac) who was from a noble lineage served these gods, and their primary objective was to keep them satisfied with elaborate ceremonies, festivals, and sacrifices; the llamas were the animal sacrifices to the gods, only in exceptional times like drought, flood or victories in war, priests offered humans to sacrifice.

The sun ( Inti) and the moon were the most important religious symbols. The Inca believed that the sun was a god who traveled daily on a golden throne across the heavens. The moon (Mama Quilla (Mama-Kilya)) was associated with water and the source of life on earth. For the Incas, the world was created at Lake Titicaca. Subsequently, it was the place of birth of all their mythology. Everything in their life was about keeping their gods and king in harmony, receiving good harvests, or being victorious in battle depended on it. Gold and silver were the metal used to cover the gods and their temple as it was the color of the celestial being.  

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Pyramid of chichAn itza. Inca Temple

Incas Art Styles

The Inca have a recognizable style and technique in producing textiles, ceramics, pottery, and metal. Andean artwork has recognizable motifs representing specific communities or the designs imposed by the ruling Inca class. The Incas designs were colorful, with geometrical shapes and abstract motifs representing animals and birds.

Pottery and Ceramics

Incan potters did not know the wheel to create their pottery. Potteries had two purposes, utilitarian and ceremonial; ceremonial ceramics (hyaco) were the more elaborate and made of better material. The most common and mass-produced ceramics, such as dishes, jars, and small sculptures, were decorated with abstract animals, insects, plant motifs, and geometrical designs. The preferred colors in earthy hues were black, white, red, and orange. Today, Incan ceramics and pottery are displayed in notable museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Larco Archeological Museum in Lima, and the Inca Museum in Peru

Metalwork

For the Inca, Gold was the sun’s sweat, and silver was the moon’s tears.

The Inca metallurgist was one of the first to use casting to give forms to their objects. Bronze and copper were used for weapons and tools like shovels used for digging, knives with curved leaves, axes, chisels, and needles. Gold and silver were for the creation of ornaments for members of the nobility such as discs, jewelry, figurines, ceremonial knives (tumi), and everyday objects. The anthropomorphic sculptures represented the deities, and the garments of the priests and emperor had gold and silver threads.

The Inca nobility used polished bronze and Copper inlaid with precious stones as mirrors, masks representing the Sun God and the goddess of the moon, and other sacred objects made for the priest were gold and silver. According to the chronicler Cieza de Leon, the city of Ichmas and Chimus produced earrings, bracelets, necklaces, rings, ritual Tumis, and ceremonial artifacts. The best goldsmiths were brought to work in the capital, Cusco, for the nobilities. Most of these objects were found in the Inca burial. The Spanish conquistadors had grabbed and melted all the gold and silver they could find to send back to the continent.

Inca Textiles

For the Inca, textiles were more precious than gold or silver. When the Spaniards arrived in the early 16th century, they offered their best garments as a welcoming offering to honor their visitors. Few examples of Inca textiles survived; most of the textiles we know today were found in the highlands and mountain burial sites or from drawings of textile designs and articles of clothing from Spanish chroniclers.

Fine cloth or textiles could be used as currency; they were so valuable. Andean textiles had recognizable motifs, and the ruling class imposed some designs. Men and women weaved; they used the backs traphorizontal single-heddle loom or vertical loom with four poles for larger pieces; cotton, llama, alpaca, and vicuña wool were knitted. The Sapa Inca wore a new outfit every day. And after he wore it, it was burned. Acllawasi, or the ‘House of the Chosen Women,” was a workhouse in the capital  Cuzco where the best weavers were relocated to weave exclusively for the ruling class. These women were chosen for their beauty and talents.

The Incas had three categories of cloth:  chusi rough (used primarily for blankets) or for daily use by the general population, awasca slightly less coarse and the most common for ceremonies, special occasions, and also for the military, these garments were sometimes lightly decorative by jewelry, and qompi the finest cloth was for the tribute for the gods, the ruling classes and the priests. “Fine cloth or textiles could be used as currency; they were valuable.  The ruling class controlled almost everything in Inca society. Andean textiles had recognizable motifs and imposed designs that represented specific communities and social classes.

Men and women weaved; they used the backs traphorizontal single-heddle loom or vertical loom with four poles for larger pieces; cotton, llama, alpaca, and vicuña wool were knitted. The Sapa Inca wore a new outfit every day. And after he wore it, it was burned. The Acllawasi, or ‘House of the Chosen Women” was a workhouse in the capital  Cuzco where the best weavers were relocated to weave exclusively for the ruling class. These women were chosen for their beauty and talents.

The Incas had three categories of cloth:  chusi rough (used primarily for blankets) or for daily use by the general population, awasca slightly less coarse and the most common for ceremonies, special occasions, and also for the military, these garments were sometimes lightly decorative by jewelry, and qompi the finest cloth was for the tribute for the gods, the ruling classes and the priests.

The primary colors used were black, white, green, yellow, orange, purple, and red. These dyes were extracted from plants, minerals, insects, and mollusks. Red was equated with conquest, rulership, and blood. Green represented rainforests and the peoples who inhabited them. Black described creation and death, while yellow could signal maize or gold. Purple was associated with Mama Oclla, the founding mother of the Inca race. Feathers of rare tropical birds and condors were reserved for decorating the royal family and nobility outfits.

The fabrics of Inca clothing were subject to Inca geography;; heavier, warmer materials in the colder Andean highlands such as llama, alpaca, and lighter cloth were used in the warmer coastal lowlands. Vicuna wool was worn exclusively by royalty. The recurring design of the Inca costumes differed little throughout the Inca realm. The type of textile and ornaments used in the dress mainly differentiates the social status. 

Inca Jewelry

Ancient Incas made jewelry using llama leather and braided fibers. Jewelry makers used gold, gemstones, good luck seeds called”hairuro,” feathers, and even seashells to decorate them. Earrings and necklaces were created from heavy pieces of gold; these earrings often stretched earlobes, sometimes to the shoulder. Gold jewelry measured social status and closeness to the Sun god. The Sapa Inca, members of the royal family, priests, and government authorities, would wear jewelry daily. In contrast, commoners would wear them only on special occasions.

Inca jewelers were artists who used gold, silver, copper, wood, seeds, feathers, gemstones, and fine textiles to fashion specific jewelry pieces. Here again, the jewelry was designed with social class in mind.

The Sapa Inca and the nobility decorated their everyday dresses and sandals with gemstones and gold pieces. Necklaces were popular among men and women, and Bangles and bracelets were popular among women. The Sapa Incas wore gold nose rings and headwear during religious ceremonies and special celebrations.

Conclusion

I hope this article has been as enlightening to you as it has been engaging in researching it. South American Art has not been given the credit it is due, yet many famous artists were and are still inspired by its color palette and design.