From time immemorial, illnesses and threats to our health have always worried us. As we are surrounded by uncertainty caused by the pandemic that has gripped our world, it may be of comfort to know that we’re not the only ones who have experienced sweeping waves of contagion and great illness. The NCMA curators and GSK Curatorial Fellow have pulled together stories from the collection that show how works of art have been used for healing by people of diverse cultural backgrounds and religion throughout the centuries, or were created to remember those who have proffered medical care in times of need.
Border between Guatemala and Mexico, Head of the God Xipe Totec (“The Flayed One”), 600–900, ceramic, H. 2 1/8 x W. 2 1/4 x D. 2 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Durrell Stone, Jr.
The Mesoamerican god Xipe (pronounced SHE-pay) had a large cult following in Central Mexico as the god of goldsmiths, war, and regeneration. Most of the figures associated with him depict a human wearing the flayed skin of another man, identifiable in this work of art by the presence of the nose adornment, the double mouth, and closed eyes, which indicate it is a mask. The god also had the power to either send or cure sickness.
Xipe exemplifies perfectly that desperate situations call for desperate measures. For example when the indigenous population suffered from eye or dermal diseases, they made a vow to wear the skin of another human. The human organ was acquired from a sacrificed war captive and flayed, and then another person dressed in this attire for several days, visiting houses asking for maize cobs and engaging in mock battles.
Such ritual activity was intended to attract the attention of the god toward human needs on earth. Indigenous people saw the attire of this god as a vessel filled with supernatural power, but more important, the rite was an act of purification. A pivotal element to achieve healing was that all the people coated with the skin should not take it off at any moment. To finish the ritual, impersonators played drums to warn people that they should lock themselves in their house, and if they found someone in the street, this person would become the victim of the next Xipe ritual.