Long before rendering two-dimensional designs into three-dimensional models became standard architectural procedure, the indigenous peoples of Latin America represented buildings in small-scale forms to much different ends. Andean and Mesoamerican cultures crafted replicas of temples and houses for funerary and burial rites, and to honor loved ones at shrines.
This ritualistic use of the architectural model is the focus of Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas, a compact and enlightening exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that opened Monday and runs through Sept. 18, 2016. The first such show in the United States, it’s tucked into its own sort of tiny shrine and comprises artifacts from multiple ancient American cultures, including the Mayas, Aztecs, Recuay, and Nayarit, with objects dating back to the first millennium B.C. The items range from 5-inch-tall stone Mezcalan temples to the breathtakingly detailed, 12-inch-tall, two-story Nayarit house model. Together, the objects form an architectural record of civilizations whose structures — and customs — are mostly vanished.
The Nayarit house model, for example, captures a feast scene on the upper level, while the family’s dead, who would have been traditionally buried under the building, are below. The piece is one of the most complex architectural models to originate from the ancient Americas, according to the exhibit, a point that’s hard to argue when compared with simpler objects in the show, like a notched bowl or a vessel shaped like a temple.
Nearby is another stunning Nayarit object, a ball-court game diorama that preserves a highly ritualistic sports moment that would have occurred between 200 B.C. and 500 A.D. At the top is a row of onlookers watching players at the base locked in an intense competition. Like the house model, it’s highly evocative thanks to painstaking detail — a player is caught hitting the ball, mid-strike, with his knee — and captures the game’s charged atmosphere and civic spirit.
Such large-scale representative pieces are organized with more utilitarian ones, like a ceramic Recuay ritual scene vessel from 200-600 A.D. that highlights sculpted figures at an altar. Some and even border on the abstract, like a Moche stirrup-spout vessel from the same period made like a wave evoking both a stairway and a typical Moche design motif.
It’s a wonderfully curated collection of artifacts. And taken together, they offer a unique encounter with ancient American cultures — a resurrection of the daily lives of long-ago civilizations, in imperfect miniature.